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Crunching Cancer With Numbers

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Taming a global killer

Skizzomat / Marie Emmermann

When Danny Hillis spent a day watching a top surgeon perform keyhole cancer surgery, he was left both exhilarated and depressed. The clinical precision with which the surgeon opened up the patient, used state-of-the-art robotic tools to remove their tumor, and sewed them back up again was breathtaking. It was also deeply disheartening. "With all our science, the best we can do is try to cut the cancer out with a knife," says Hillis. "That is the caveman approach to disease."

A few years ago, what he thought would not have mattered. Hillis is a celebrated computer architect who pioneered the concept of massively parallel computing. His accomplishments include using a children's construction set to build a computer, now exhibited at the Museum of Science in Boston, designing a mechanical clock that will keep time for 10,000 years and creating cutting-edge computer systems for Walt Disney theme park rides and animations. Impressive, but hardly a convincing resumé to pronounce on the shortcomings of modern cancer surgery.

But Hillis's thoughts and expertise do matter. According to the World Health Organization, this year cancer is set to overtake heart disease as the leading cause of death in developed countries. While traditional biological approaches to understanding and combating cancer have had some great successes, mortality rates remain stubbornly high. That's why last year the U.S. National Cancer Institute enlisted Hillis and other high-powered researchers from physics, engineering, mathematics and computer science to see what extra ammunition they might supply.

From New Scientist
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