Andrea Kuliasha receives honors college fellowship for cancer studies

April 25th, 2017

Andrea Kuliasha, a biological systems engineering major from Fredericksburg, Virginia, has been awarded the 2017 Patricia C. Perna Fellowship by the Virginia Tech Honors College.

Kuliasha distinguished herself by working toward the development of a brain tumor testing environment in 3D hydrogel. Her work follows the spirit of the Perna Fellowship, which was endowed to honor the memory of a family matriarch who passed away in 2006 following an extended battle with cancer.

Kuliasha became interested in cancer research during her freshman year, when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. To understand the situation, she sought out scientific papers and explored the details of treatment options. Her piqued interest led her to a conversation with Scott Verbridge, an assistant professor in biomedical engineering who studies cancer.

“I came in the next day,” she says. “That was it.”

Training in Verbridge’s lab, Andrea learned to create microenvironments to demonstrate how cancer cells grow. The independent study she had taken up came to life in front of her; she could directly observe how cancer cells transmit signal proteins which draw life-giving blood vessels toward themselves. The increase of blood to a small area leads to inflammation, and this may be an optimal environment for tumors to grow. Understanding this process and those which cause it could lead to a more complete picture of how tumors grow.

This is the focus of Verbridge’s lab: studying the spread of cancer down to the smallest observable scale. Most of her work involves long-chain molecules which feed cancer and other diseases contributing to inflammation, and possible connections. The effect these molecules have on the defensive system that keeps unwanted toxins and molecules out of brain tissue is observable in hydrogel, which she uses to mimic brain tissue.

Kuliasha sees her current work as a career path. After she graduates, she plans to pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, keeping her studies centered on cancer research and tissue engineering. As her ultimate destination, she has her sights set on either the National Institutes for Health or another government research facility.

As for her mom, she finished her cancer treatment and is recovering well.