Virginia Tech researcher receives CAREER Award to seek new paradigms for treating aggressive brain tumors

February 17th, 2017

Scott Verbridge, Assistant Professor in Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, has received the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award. This is the most prestigious award given by the NSF in support of junior faculty who demonstrate the potential to effectively integrate research and education. The CAREER award recognizes Dr. Verbridge’s outstanding contributions to the growing field of “tumor engineering”, as well as his teaching and mentoring work at Virginia Tech and in the surrounding community.

This award will provide $504,160 in support of Dr. Verbridge’s research into treating the most common and deadly brain tumor, known as glioblastoma (GBM). The average survival time for a GBM patient diagnosed today is just over one year, and this statistic has not changed significantly for decades. Because surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy have yet to prove effective for GBM patients, the Verbridge lab has been working on a very different treatment concept. While a large body of research is focused on the molecular aspects of tumors (such as genetic mutations), Verbridge has been pursuing the idea that the physical properties of tumor tissues may provide effective alternative targets for next generation therapies.

“The differences between healthy and tumorous tissues go far beyond the genetic mutations that deregulate cell growth,” says Verbridge. “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”.

One example that Dr. Verbridge has been especially interested in is the altered electrical properties of tumors, such as changes in cell membrane charge or tumor tissue conductivity. However it was not previously clear how these characteristics could be translated into cancer treatments. After establishing his lab in Blacksburg, Dr. Verbridge began collaboration with Virginia Tech researchers who had pioneered a physics-based tumor treatment method. It quickly became clear that this technique, which uses pulsed electric fields for tumor ablation, could provide just the capability to target altered tumor physics that Dr. Verbridge had been after. “Being able to collaborate with these amazing researchers, particularly Drs. Rafael Davalos in BEAM and John Rossmeisl in the Vet School, who have done such an impressive job pioneering this exciting new therapy, was a major factor in my deciding to come to Virginia Tech and pursue this research,” says Verbridge.

The CAREER funding will enable the Verbridge lab to dive deeply into the fundamental cellular responses to pulsed electric fields of the sort that have been used for tumor ablation. In this project, these pulses will be applied alone and in combination with complementary treatments such as chemotherapy, in the hopes that synergistic effects may be identified that will ultimately be useful therapeutically. Verbridge’s published work has already identified pulse parameters leading to tumor cell-specific ablation, as well as sub-lethal pulses that drive regression of malignancy in three-dimensional model tumors. This award will enable Verbridge to develop new high throughput experimental methods and tissue model platforms to explore the wide-ranging outcomes possible with this new treatment paradigm. 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. The research project will be carried out in collaboration with graduate and undergraduate students in the Verbridge lab.

“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, and also to continue to expand the educational and student training aspects of this work that ultimately make my job so rewarding,” says Verbridge.

Dr. Verbridge joined Virginia Tech in January of 2012, where he now directs the Laboratory of Integrative Tumor Ecology (LITE). Verbridge is a primary member of the Virginia Tech – Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences (SBES), and is also a member of the Tumor Recurrence and Progression Program of the Wake Forest Comprehensive Cancer Center, and affiliate faculty of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS). He is currently a Principal Investigator on three National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded projects in collaboration with researchers at Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. The Verbridge lab is located in the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) building and is additionally supported by funds from SBES, ICTAS, the Macromolecules Innovation Institute (MII), and the VT Center for Drug Discovery (VTCDD).