This document describes a plan for the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Office of Physical Sciences - Oncology (OPSO) to participate in and co-sponsor a study led by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct an international Assessment of Physical sciences and Engineering advances in Life sciences and Oncology (APHELION). The APHELION is aimed at determining the status and trends of research and development whereby physical sciences and engineering principles are being applied to cancer research and oncology in leading laboratories and organizations via an on-site peer review process in Europe and Asia. The NSF has an existing contract with the World Technology Evaluation Center (WTEC), Inc. under which the study will be conducted.

The mission of the NCI is to conduct and foster cancer research; reviewing and approving grant-in-aid applications to support promising research projects on the causes, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer; collecting, analyzing, and disseminating the results of cancer research conducted in the United States and in other countries; and providing training and instruction in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Over the years, NCI has evolved into the world's pre-eminent cancer research organization.

Under the leadership of the NCI Deputy Director, the Center for Strategic Scientific Initiatives (CSSI) coordinates several efforts both within and outside of NCI to carry-out its function of supporting timely execution and implementation of activities that have trans-NCI benefit. Within the NCI, the CSSI houses (1) The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) Program Office; (2) Office of Cancer Nanotechnology Research; (3) Office of Cancer Clinical Proteomics Research; (4) Office of Physical Sciences-Oncology; (5) Office of Biorepositories and Biospecimen Research; (6) Office of Cancer Genomics; (7) Knowledge Management and Special Projects Branch; (8) Center for Global Cancer Health Research. These offices support extramural research programs and lead standards and policy development initiatives with the goal of accelerating advances in biomedical technology and furthering the vision of personalized medicine.

The NCI Office of Physical Sciences-Oncology (OPSO) (1) serves as a nexus for the development and implementation of physical science-based initiatives to enable progress in cancer research for NCI and its integration across trans-NCI, trans-NIH, and inter-agency activities; (2) enables the development of discoveries and new fields of study based on the application of aspects of the physical sciences approaches to cancer research; (3) and facilitates the exploration of novel and innovative approaches to advance our understanding of the physical laws and principles that shape and govern the emergence and behavior of cancer at all scales.

The NSF has long had a role in maintaining the general health of science and education across a range of universities and other organizations and has been deeply involved in funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. Recently, the NSF and the NCI have collaborated on a funding opportunity titled Physical and Engineering Sciences in Oncology (PESO) Awards [also known as the Physical and Life Sciences Early Research (PLIER) Awards].

The rationale for the NCI OPSO participation in the APHELION with NSF is based on the premise that significant advances may be expected as the result of continued investments in inter- and multi-disciplinary research at the intersection of the engineering/physical sciences and the life sciences. The field of cancer biology is one that has been dominated, historically, by researchers with classical training in the basic and clinical life sciences. More recently, the field has expanded to include physical and engineering scientists, whose background and expertise are complementary to those possessed by life scientists, leading to the recognition that significant advancements in the fundamental understanding of cancer diseases are possible through multidisciplinary research that involves experts in chemistry, physics, materials science, and manifold engineering disciplines. Emerging and burgeoning opportunities for collaborative research at the intersection of the physical/engineering sciences and the life sciences have been identified through several NSF workshops over the past few years. Furthermore, the NCI launched a program to bring new perspectives from the physical sciences to cancer biology and oncology in 2009. The Physical Sciences - Oncology Centers (PS-OCs) Program is in its third year of implementation and the OPSO will use the study to help develop relevant and novel funding concepts to further the mission of the NCI. Specifically, the OPSO seek novel research concepts at the interface of engineering/physical sciences and the life sciences with a focus on advancing the fundamental understanding of cancer biology to underpin translational research that promotes the prevention, detection, and treatment of cancer diseases.


In 1971 President Nixon declared war on cancer, and much effort has been invested in learning more about this complex system of diseases, and in developing treatments. However, despite considerable progress in treatment of certain forms of cancer, progress in reducing its mortality by conventional biomedical approaches is disappointing. Thus, in addition to new biomedical approaches, such as those based on the human genome, some researchers are using concepts from the physical sciences. In the U.S. much of the research that applies physical sciences and engineering concepts to cancer biology and oncology is supported by the Office of Physical Sciences - Oncology (OPSO) at the National Cancer Institute. The OPSO is exploring innovative new approaches to better understand and control cancer by encouraging the convergence of the physical sciences with cancer biology and oncology. Building on stunning progress in the molecular sciences, it supports new research themes based on the application of physical sciences concepts and approaches to the major barriers in cancer reearch.

Examples of concepts being explored by the OPSO through its Physical Sciences - Oncology Centers (PS-OCs) Program are: (1) Applying physics and engineering laws and principles to cancer by defining the role of thermodynamics and mechanics in metastasis and determining how this knowledge might be employed in new intervention strategies; (2) Applying evolution and evolutionary theory to cancer by developing a comprehensive theoretical inclusive construct that would provide a foundation for understanding and predicting cancer heterogeneity; (3) Applying information theory to cancer by pursuing theoretical and supportive experimental approaches that define what information is and how it is decoded and managed in terms of cell signaling and contextual information translation in cancer; and (4) Deconvoluting cancer’s complexity by pursuing theoretical and experimental approaches from the physical sciences to cancer complexity that will inform a new fundamental level of understanding of cancer that may facilitate prediction of viable pathways to develop novel interventions.

The NSF currently has an umbrella contract awarded to the World Technology Evaluation Center (WTEC), Inc. to facilitate the assessment of research in engineering and science worldwide with the aim of maintaining U.S. leadership in these areas. WTEC is a non-profit research institute, which conducts international research assessment studies for the NSF, NIH, DOD, and other Federal agencies--more than 60 to date. Recent related studies include Nanotechnology Research Directions for Societal Needs in 2020, Brain-Computer Interfaces, Catalysis by Nanostructured Materials, Simulation-Based Engineering and Science, Rapid Vaccines Manufacturing, Tissue Engineering, and Systems Biology.


The objective of this joint study with the NCI OPSO and the NSF is to utilize an expert panel consisting of prominent scientists in the field of applying physical sciences and engineering perspectives/principles to oncology and other biomedical areas to conduct site visits at overseas institutions to conduct an international Assessment of PHysical sciences and Engineering advances in LIfe sciences and ONcology (APHELION). The findings of the APHELION will result in briefings to the sponsors, public workshops and a final report that will collectively provide a comprehensive, peer-reviewed set of evaluations of physical sciences-oncology research overseas in comparison to research being conducted in the United States.


This agreement is entered into under the authority of the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 as amended (42 USC 1861 et seq, specifically 1873(f) and section 241A and 301 of the Public Health Services Act, as amended.

These authorizations for these agencies, together with the internal policies and procedures of each agency, define the authority of the agencies to enter Into this agreement and to manage this joint program focused on physical, mathematical, and engineering sciences or some combination of such the biological sciences.