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Networks and bladder cancer: Complex Networks Conference 2023

04 Mar 2024

Vlad, PhD student from the JBU

Networks are all around us, from underground maps to the social networks that reflect shared interests between people. The same is found in biology! For example, signalling networks control how cells interact within a tissue, and genes control the activity of other genes. Understanding how these networks are altered in cancer holds one of the keys to finding new targets to exploit therapeutically.

So what is a network? It needs to have entities (nodes) that are connected by links (edges), as shown below in the example of a simple network. The more important nodes (those that have lots of connections) are also called hubs, like South Kensington in London or, in bladder cancer, FGFR3, the gene that has been the focus of Ryan Ellison’s YAC-funded PhD research (you can read about his experience in Barcelona in 2022). But how exactly can networks help us understand and better define hubs (AKA subgroups) in bladder cancer?

Last December, Vlad Ungureanu, a final-year PhD student from the Jack Birch Unit, was generously funded by York Against Cancer to attend the Complex Networks Conference in Menton, France, where he presented his latest results using network analysis in bladder cancer.

For the Complex Networks conference, Vlad used the healthy tissue data from the JBU to build an approximated network representation of how the genes are connected. He then applied different algorithms, known as community detection, to identify sub-networks that correspond to biological functions within the tissue. Imagine this as similar to the zones in London which contain certain stations (in our case, genes). Continuing the analogy, Vlad then looked at where people live in London. In biological terms, the people are the molecular profile, and the zone is their biological function. Based on their ‘zone membership’, the number of bladder subgroups is established.

Determining the number of zones (or communities) is still an on-going research question in network theory and also a key aspect of Vlad’s project. The conference was therefore a great opportunity to understand cutting-edge methods and to then use them in his PhD project. For more details about the project and to visualise networks see Vlad’s blog post and the photo below of Vlad standing by his poster.

Besides the biological networks, there were other applications presented at the conference, such as social networks. Interestingly, many researchers have utilised the X (formerly Twitter) database to study political polarisation, including during elections in Italy and the US. There was also a significant focus on how viruses spread through populations, showcasing the versatility of network theory and the broad applicability of algorithms such as in community detection.

Attending the Complex Networks conference in Menton, France, was not only an opportunity for Vlad to discuss the latest research from the JBU group but also a challenge to present the latest developments in bladder cancer research to a non-biology audience.  The trip was an invaluable experience for Vlad’s project and for promoting the use of networks to stratify cancer. Lastly, the location in Menton offered breath-taking views of the Côte d’Azur and the enchanting old town, as seen in the photo below.