Trillions of living cells in the human body are constantly communicating with each other through an exchange of chemical signals. Peter Thomas, assistant professor of mathematics, biology and cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University, is on a quest to find out how "cells make sense of the barrages of signaling molecules they encounter every day."
He has a received a three-year, $120,000 research grant from the National Science Foundation to employ the mathematical theory of communication, known as information theory, that is used in communications engineering and apply it to cell communications called signal transduction.
Claude Shannon at Bell Laboratories pioneered information theory in the 1940s. It provided the technical foundation for modern communications devices ranging from computers to cell phones, Thomas said.
"Specifically, the question I'm asking is how much information can a cell obtain about chemical gradients and other signals released from the cells around it," he said.
Instead of focusing on cells in a particular disease, his research will look at the overall way cells communicate.
"Cells have a similar problem as someone manufacturing a cell phone would have," he said. "When the cell phone sends a signal to a tower, it doesn't always arrive perfectly intact, but breaks up along the way because of the various sources of noise."
He wants to find out how cells pick up signals from chemicals such as hormones that might be in distant parts of the body and have to travel through tissues and organs to reach the site where they are needed to carry out the cell function.
"During that process of spreading throughout the body or tissue, the original signal can become broken up and degraded just the way static interferes with sound on the radio or in cell phones," said Thomas.
"By improving our understanding of cell-to-cell communication and the physical constraints on its efficiency, the proposed project has the potential to improve our ability to understand a wide range of diseases involving breakdowns in cellular communications, such as cancer, chronic inflammation and certain developmental defects," Thomas said. He is among a new generation of scientists who are trained to use mathematics to help understand biological systems.
"The interaction between math and biology—and some other related intellectual areas—is a recent and continuing initiative on this campus," said James Alexander, chair of the Department of Mathematics in Case Western Reserve's College of Arts and Sciences. "Mathematical biology is a national research priority, and Peter is at the focus of initiating this synergistic activity."
Alexander added, "His successful proposal is a manifestation that his research vision excites professionals in the field."
After studying the general communications between cells, Thomas plans to take the research to the next step and collaborate with engineers to test white blood cells and how the immune response is triggered.
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