NYC dream: The pipette and the paintbrush

Back in 2015 when I founded Cancer ART-SCI Network to unite the cancer researchers and artists worldwide to advance prevention, diagnosis and cure for cancer, I had three major goals in my mind. As Valerie Garcia eloquently wrote in her article after interviewing me, these goals were:

1) Informational – communicating complex scientific problems via art to a broader audience, 2) Emotional – providing an expressive avenue to cancer patients to cope with the side effects during their therapy, and, 3) Creative – generating novel ideas and hypothesis to be tested in the scientific labs. I gathered a lot of like-minded people for the first two goals and created significant number of appropriate events over the past two years showing the impact in 20 countries by 189 members of this network. But, the third goal was the most difficult one.

My vision for the third goal was to bring art to the scientific research labs as a way to fill the blind spot in data-driven research – to help scientists understand complex theoretical concepts of cancer where real-life data are not available yet. The major hurdle was to avoid the vicious cycle. Some of the cancer researchers and science writers told me they would consider believing that art can help advance science if I could show them evidence of others reporting so. One way to overcome this was through the documenting evidences through the Art and Cancer section of Leonardo journal from MIT Press. Thankfully, Leonardo’s editor-in-chief who was also a NASA astrophysicist believed in my vision.

Now, I cannot speak for other cancer researchers who dived into practicing art and found benefits in their scientific research. I understand it takes courage to break an ideology as a set of beliefs that art is way too loose to help data-driven, reproducible, statistically significant, evidence based scientific research. Moreover, the value of fighting this battle is not clear to most of the cancer researchers.

But, I can speak for myself. In early 2016, when my scientific article undergoing review at the Cancer Research journal from AACR Press demanded some in vivo data, I utilized that situation as an opportunity to use art and science together to answer a complex question. 

My visual exploration of cancer as a chaotic system
Using lung cancer patients derived cells (in vitro) I have already shown that certain types of lung cancer, even from one patient, may have more than one type of tumor cells and hence more than one therapy could provide a better therapeutic outcome. To show this results held right also in the laboratory animals (in vivo) I had to think about majorly two issues that I didn’t address before: when to begin the treatment and how to space out the treatment. While the thought process leading to the answer of the first question came from my visual exploration of chaotic nature of lung cancer in paintings and mixed media, the exact planning was also based on the previously available scientific data available from the literature and my collaborators from New York.

The second question was trickier. For this one, I studied concept called the “period of intermittency.” Now, in terms of time scale, the period of intermittency is a short period and the tumors can go back being chaotic or unpredictable with a slight increase in growth signal from within the cells or from the microenvironment. Ideally, I wanted to space out the schedule in a way to keep the tumors in the intermittent state at my best efforts. This led to the thought – “how to space out the doses.” This was the artistic intuition part of the process. This is somewhat a balance between how much drug we give to eliminate the cells and how much growth promoting signals the cells are receiving. I was very happy when I observed that my experiment on reducing the growth of lung tumors in animals gave a positive result.

My painting on the period of intermittency in tumor’s evolution
As a scientist, I could have done detailed experiments with different combinations of when to begin and how to space out the treatment to measure toxicity and identify which combination works the best to reduce the tumor burden. But instead of that long and already established route, I followed my artistic intuition. I know I will be criticized by the scientists for this as I do not have a statistical significance, per se, of my artistic intuition. We don’t know if this intuition will work the same way for other therapies in other tumors. But, this is definitely a new way of looking into an existing problem and that’s what artists have done in the history – they always challenged the ideologies and the belief that appeared normal.
In summary, working through precise scientific experiments we tend to forget to take risks. Taking risk is even harder when we are working on a problem on which millions of patients’ lives depend. But, remembering the fact that most of the revolutionary scientific discoveries were done by accidents, I believe we can supplement traditional science with new techniques. The paintbrush from an artist’s studio should never replace the micro-pipette in a scientist’s lab. But, holding on to the paintbrush may provide new ideas from a new consciousness. After all, a very famous scientist once said – “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

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