Nine out of every 10 cancer deaths occur because the disease has spread. Yet metastasis is the most poorly understood process in cancer biology.

"Its complexity has scared away many cancer scientists," notes Robert Weinberg, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

How does a cancer cell suddenly acquire the ability to jump to distant organs? Then how does the itinerant cell learn to invade the brain or liver? The lack of answers to these most basic of research questions has led to, at best, a stalemate in the war on cancer, which kills more than a half million U.S. patients annually. 

To understand metastasis, scientists say new approaches are needed that go beyond simple combat analogies. Enter M.I.T.'s new, megamillion-dollar David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, where cancer scientists and topflight engineers will try something different.

The collaborative effort may be the best means of putting to practical use the emerging (and still esoteric) field of systems biology, which studies complex interactions in biological systems.

Engineers are well-equipped to sketch so-called wiring diagrams of biochemical pathways that lead to aberrant cancer cells. Instead of focusing on a particular protein or pathway, a biomedical engineering approach opens the door to multiple levels of abstraction (from genes to the entire human body) in much the same way that electrical engineers can conceptualize the design of a box displaying moving images of Britney Spears ducking a swarm of paparazzi based on their understanding of how electrons course through a copper wire.

This could be key given that the underlying mechanisms of metastasis and resistance to cancer drugs are nothing if not complex interactions in a biological system.

As might be expected, this marriage of biology and technology is also designed to find new ways of diagnosing the disease, monitoring its progression and delivering drugs to fight it. In one approach, proteins coating injectable nano-size magnetic particles home in on tumors and can be imaged by an MRI machine.

"This generation of devices wouldn't require you to be biopsying a tumor or even know where the tumor was," says Sangeeta Bhatia, an associate professor of health sciences and technology/electrical engineering and computer science at M.I.T. who is developing such a system. Once the tumor is located, a clinician might then activate a radio signal that would release a drug bound to the particles.

M.I.T. held a groundbreaking last week for the new institute, which will replace its Center for Cancer Research that dates back to the days of President Richard Nixon's war on cancer in the early 1970s. Oil magnate David Koch, an M.I.T. alumnus and prostate cancer survivor, donated $100 million to defray most of the construction costs.

The 350,000–square foot (32,515–square meter) institute, set to open in late 2010, will feature 25 laboratories, double the number in the original center. It will be home to elite researchers like Nobelist Phillip Sharp as well as Robert Langer, perhaps the world's leading biomedical engineer.