New bioscientist bolsters Rice’s cancer research

Aryeh Warmflash brings stem cell expertise to ovarian cancer research 

Rice University’s newest recruit in the fight against cancer, Aryeh Warmflash, moved to Houston this fall on the heels of breakthrough embryonic stem cell research at Rockefeller University in New York. Thanks to a major recruitment grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, Warmflash is now directing his research toward the study of ovarian cancer.

An assistant professor of biosciences at Rice, Warmflash is preparing his lab to study the signaling pathways and environmental prompts that direct the growth of cancer cells. He joined Rice thanks to a $2 million grant through the state cancer institute’s Scholars program for first-time, tenure-track faculty members.

Aryeh Warmflash

Aryeh Warmflash joined Rice to study the mechanics of ovarian cancer. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Warmflash left Rockefeller on a high note with the August publication of a Nature Methods paper that demonstrated how embryonic stem cells organize themselves into the hundreds of cell types found in humans.

“My background is in physics, but I got into the study of biology in graduate school,” Warmflash said. There, he began to model how stem cells make decisions. “I started making mathematical models and got really interested in development, especially the issue of how cells know what to do.”

He narrowed his focus to the patterns stem cells adopt as they differentiate. “Over time, tissue has to organize itself; at the grossest level, that means putting the head in the right place and the feet in the right place.” But the earliest stages of the process are subtle and impossible to view in their natural setting.

“Biologists have been working on these beautiful patterns for a long time and have made a lot of progress, but their focus has been on identifying genes that are important for development. We know if we knock out this gene, that happens. We sort of understand it.

“But in terms of the more mechanistic understanding of what’s happening in space and time, it’s like we have the parts list but we don’t really know how it works.”

Warmflash’s Rockefeller experiment demonstrated for the first time that human stem cells must be confined, as they are in the womb, to differentiate properly. He developed massive assays with circular wells of various sizes to see how such confinement influenced colonies of cells, which responded much as they would in utero.

“The thing we hit upon is that a lot of the context for the stem cells is geometrical,” he said. Ultimately, Warmflash hopes to have equations to model stem cell differentiation. “We’re a long way from that, but then we’ll be able to model all kinds of things. For stem cells, we want to be able to take the cells and make anything we want to use them for regenerative medicine.”

Cancer presents a similar challenge, he said. “But in this a case, a lot of these same processes go wrong. If we understand how they work mechanistically, we can better understand how to fix them.”

He expects to see parallels between how healthy stem cells differentiate and how cancerous tumors develop. “In the same way we want to understand stem cell development so we can control it for regenerative medicine, we want to understand the spatial and temporal aspects of cancer so we can disrupt it while leaving healthy processes as intact as possible,” he said.

Budding collaborations with The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center will help in that regard. The opportunity to collaborate with Texas Medical Center doctors and researchers was a draw for Warmflash. “I like the atmosphere at Rice,” he said. “And to have the medical center in such close proximity is a real benefit to our research.”


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.