The ME Course Column is a recurring publication about the unique classes and labs that mechanical engineers can take while at the University of Colorado Boulder. Follow the series to understand the core curriculum, discover elective course options and learn the broad applications of mechanical engineering skills.
In order to comprehend certain aspects of cancer biology, the mechanics driving the disease need to be understood. The mechanics of cancer can teach engineers a lot about how the cells interact with each other and form solid tumors.
Students in the Department of Mechanical Engineering are learning how those solid and fluid mechanics play a role in the course MCEN 4228/5228: Mechanics of Cancer. Taught by Professor Maureen Lynch, the class examines the experimental systems and technical evaluations of solid tumors to model and test cancer-related processes.
The course starts with Lynch reminding students of what the most common way that breast cancer is diagnosed – by feeling it.
“These changes in stiffness or density are a mechanical piece for diagnosis,” said Lynch. “Not only is it an indication that there is a tumor present, but it also plays a role in examining how quickly the tumor is developing, if the tumor going to spread or which treatments the tumor is sensitive to. Physical cues matter.”
The mechanical engineering students taking this course come in with the basic knowledge of what stiffness is in engineering terms. Their understanding expands as the course dives into how they can measure those density changes and connect them to tumor progression.
“We measure everything from the tissue level, which you can see with your eyes, down to the microscopic or nanoscale where you can’t see what you’re measuring,” said Lynch. “You need to know whether you’re measuring a single cell or a single protein and what scale to use.”
Flowchart showing how mechanics influence cancer progression.
Lynch explained that students also learn to examine the speed of fluids as it relates to cancer spread, since tissues are mostly made up of water. Fluid could potentially carry tumor cells to different parts of the body.
“The students like the connection that this class makes to their other engineering classes,” said Lynch. “I will pull up figures from their sophomore or junior year classes and explain how they are useful in biology. We use our engineering skills in a brand-new way.”
As the semester wraps up, the students are conducting final presentations on technical topics of their choice surrounding the mechanics of cancer.
“I give a lot of latitude with those presentations, so I always learn something because we can’t cover everything about the mechanics of cancer in one semester,” said Lynch. “The students pick what they want to research and what they want to talk about.”
MCEN 4228/5228: Mechanics of Cancer is generally offered in the spring semester. It is open to juniors, seniors and graduate students in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and admits some students from the Biomedical Engineering Program.