The Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation recognizes Bahareh Behkam, an associate professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering, for her innovative work on bacteria-based cancer therapy.
Behkam earned a 2015 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award to focus on investigating interactions between bacteria and tumor-associated cells in a 3-D tumor model and developing engineering methods to influence the interactions. The goal is to enhance the efficacy of bacteria-based cancer therapy.
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.
Behkam says engineered bacteria with reduced virulence have been shown to safely and selectively accumulate in cancerous tissue in laboratory models to treat cancers that are not responsive to traditional radiation and chemotherapy. New bacterial products, which have been used in cancer therapy since the 19th century, may lead to better 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 Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.
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.
Behkam is also a faculty member in the 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.
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.