Andrea Kuliasha, of Fredericksburg, Virginia, became interested in cancer research when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer during her freshman year at Virginia Tech.

Kuliasha, a biological systems engineering major, 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 the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics in the College of Engineering who studies and develops new ways to treat cancer.

“I came in the next day,” said Kuliasha. “That was it.”

Now in her senior year, Kuliasha is training in Verbridge’s lab working toward the development of a brain tumor testing environment in 3-D hydrogel, creating microenvironments to demonstrate how cancer cells grow.

Kuliasha observed that cancer cells transmit signal proteins that 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.

In Verbridge’s Laboratory of Integrative Tumor Ecology, Kuliasha is 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.

To continue her research, Kuliasha has been awarded the 2017 Patricia C. Perna Fellowship by the Virginia Tech Honors College. 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 sees her current work as a career path.

After she graduates in 2018, Kuliasha 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 of Health or another government research facility.

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

Written by Alex Parrish

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