Innovative work on bacteria-based cancer therapy has earned Bahareh Behkam, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, a 2015 National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award of $505,000.

Behkam's research will focus on investigating interactions between bacteria and tumor associated cells in a 3-D tumor model and developing engineered methods to locally modulate these interactions. The long-term goal of this project is to enhance the efficacy of bacteria-based cancer therapy.

"Bacteria and bacterial products have been used in cancer therapy since the 19th century," said Behkam. "When tested in laboratory animal models, engineered bacteria with reduced virulence have been shown to safely accumulate in cancerous tissue with high selectivity and treat cancers that are not responsive to traditional radiation and chemotherapy. However, clinical success has been rarely achieved."

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, claiming over half a million lives annually, according to the National Cancer Institute.  Furthermore, the number of new cases per year is expected to double by 2050. Therefore, there is an overwhelming need for improved, non-invasive disease diagnostics and more effective drug delivery techniques that minimize toxic side effects.

Behkam and researchers from her Micro/NanoScale Biotic/Abiotic Systems Engineering (MicronN BASE) Laboratory plan to integrate computational and experimental approaches to biomanufacture an engineered bacteria-based system of bacteria that target tumors, paired with a protein toxin, to control bacteria-immune cell interactions within the cancer environment and enhance bacterial growth for improved tumor therapy.

The impact of this research on treatment of non-responsive or difficult cancers has clear widespread benefit to society and the general population. Her research has also garnered internal support from her department, the college of engineering and the Virginia Tech Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.

Behkam's CAREER plan builds on her desire to enhance retention and recruitment of socioeconomically-disadvantaged and ethnically-underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Her multi-tiered approach will expose elementary, high school, and community college members to research and educational opportunities. These activities will leverage Virginia Tech's existing programs and online tools.

"I am both excited and honored to have been selected as a recipient of the NSF CAREER award. The award creates an excellent opportunity to pursue my research, education, and outreach interests in cancer therapy. It also constitutes a significant step towards developing disruptive technologies that are tailored to early-stage diagnosis and minimally-invasive treatment of cancer, infectious diseases, and cardiovascular disorders," Behkam said.

Behkam's current research initiatives, in addition to bacteria-based drug delivery systems for cancer therapy, include biophysics of cell migration and physical chemistry of microbial adhesion and biofilm formation.

She received her bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Sharif University of Technology, Iran, and completed her master's and doctoral degrees, also in mechanical engineering, at Carnegie Mellon University. In her graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon University, Behkam was among a pioneering group of scientists who demonstrated the use of whole cells as actuators for microscale bio-hybrid robotic systems. While at Virginia Tech, prior NSF funding has allowed Behkam to develop a method for harnessing bacterial sensing, engineering bacterial communication, and establishing applications in biomedical therapy diagnostics and environmental biosensing.

Behkam is a core faculty member in Virginia Tech-Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences and an affiliate faculty of Virginia Tech's Macromolecules and Interfaces Institute. She founded the MicronN BASE Laboratory at Virginia Tech in 2009.

She received the College of Engineering Outstanding New Assistant Professor Award in 2012.

In November 2014, Behkam was invited to attend the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative on "Collective Behavior: From Cells to Societies" in Irvine, California. In April 2015 she will be serving as an invited panelist on "NSF-NCI joint workshop on tumor engineering," held on the National Institute of Health main campus in Bethesda, Maryland.

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