If diagnosed today, a glioblastoma brain cancer patient has on average a year to live. Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy have yet to prove effective for patients stricken with the deadly brain tumor.

A Virginia Tech researcher, Scott Verbridge, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics in the College of Engineering, is working on an innovative cancer treatment using the physical properties of tumors as effective alternative targets for next-generation therapies.

“The differences between healthy and tumorous tissues go far beyond the genetic mutations that deregulate cell growth,” said Verbridge, a faculty member in the Virginia Tech – Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences. “There are profound differences in all aspects of tumor cell behavior and these translate into alterations in the very physical nature of these tissues. For example, breast tumors are often identified due to the tissue stiffening that is associated with this disease.”

Verbridge has received a National Science Foundation Faculty (NSF) Early Career Development Award that will enable his work with tumor engineering and teaching and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students in the Laboratory of Integrative Tumor Ecology.

The team is specifically looking into fundamental cellular responses to pulsed electric fields that have been used to destroy tumors. The isolated pulses will be applied in combination with complementary treatments, such as chemotherapy. The hope is to identify synergistic effects that will ultimately benefit patients.

This research builds upon Verbridge’s previous work to identify pulse parameters leading to tumor cell-specific ablation and sub-lethal pulses, driving regression of malignancy in three-dimensional model tumors.

The experimental techniques developed will also enable therapy testing on small cell number samples, such as those collected from patient biopsies, and will thus help advance personalized cancer medicine.

“I am so thankful to the NSF for providing my lab this unique opportunity to be able to focus on the basic science underpinning this important translational research,” said Verbridge, a member of the Tumor Recurrence and Progression Program of the Wake Forest Comprehensive Cancer Center and Faculty of Health Sciences. “To be able to continue to expand the educational and student training aspects of this work that ultimately make my job so rewarding.”

The Laboratory of Integrative Tumor Ecology is supported by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, the Macromolecules Innovation Institute, and the Virginia Tech Center for Drug Discovery.

Written by Alex Parrish

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