Kateřina Staňková
“I feel that my biggest achievement is that I seem to be convincing medical doctors that mathematics can change people’s lives"

Power dynamics

The ability to reason gives humans an edge over beings driven by evolution, like cancer cells or animals. The outcome of this power imbalance varies depending on where you look.

Joining two fields

“Imagine that in the same game, I have some players who are rational, and some players who are driven by evolution. That’s a new thought. It applies to a game between cancer cells and doctors, but it also has applications in pest management and in the control of virus diseases, for example.”

Developing tools for this overarching branch of game theory steered Staňková into adaptive therapy, a different way of treating cancer. By mathematically modelling a tumour’s response to drugs, cancer treatments can be optimized on an individual basis. Tumours could grow slower and be controlled for longer, all with the use of less drugs than a conventional treatment plan would involve. “But we need to play it smarter by exploiting our ability to reason,” Staňková  says. Currently, the methods devised by her and her colleagues are undergoing trial investigations for the treatment of metastatic thyroid and prostate cancer.

Kateřina Staňková at the bear pit

Changing lives for the better

Staňková is proud of the implications of her work. “I feel that my biggest achievement is that I seem to be convincing medical doctors that mathematics can change people’s lives,” she says.

It’s a different kind of comfort than the girl can offer by petting the giraffe inside the bear pit, but it’s a reassuring thought all the same.

Kateřina Staňková sitting next to bear statue

Adaptive therapy

Intuitively, you may think that the best strategy to attack a tumour is to kill as many cancer cells as possible, and to do it as fast as you can. This is common practice when it comes to treating metastatic cancer.

However, mathematical models show how this approach targets cancer cells which are sensitive to the treatment. The resistant cancer cells survive and eventually make up the entire tumour: it has evolved to be resistant to treatment. In some cases, the resistant tumour grows faster than if less medication would have been used and some non-resistant cancer cells had remained.

The mathematical models used for adaptive therapy incorporate patient-specific data to model a patient’s response to treatment, and can inform doctors about which therapy regime is the best.

"We need to play it smarter by exploiting our ability to reason."
Kateřina Staňková

The Halfautomatische Troostmachine (Half-automatic Comforting Machine)

This art installation commemorates the bears housed in the pit until 1993.

Inside the bear cage, a dying giraffe is being comforted by a girl. Originally, the chair on the rotating platform just behind the cage powered an underground mechanism that made the girl pet the giraffe when the platform spun, but this mechanism no longer works. The girl and giraffe are surrounded by bronze statues of extinct animals.

Jo the Bear sits on a bench some 100 meters to the side of the pit. The bronze bear statue was only included after citizens complained that the installation inside the pit had nothing to do with bears. The artist, Michel Huisman, originally decided to leave out Jo after the bear came to him in a dream and requested not to be put back in the cage he already spent most of his life in.

The Halfautomatische Troostmachine
6211 LV, Maastricht

Power dynamics

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