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Medical student earns 2 national fellowships to conduct brain cancer research

April 27, 2016

Zhi Sheng, PhD, and VTCSOM student Pratik Kanabur (David Hungate for VTCRI)

Pratik Kanabur and Zhi Sheng stand in the Sheng Laboratory.
Pratik Kanabur, at left, a Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine student, and Zhi Sheng, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute

The St. Baldrick’s Foundation recently awarded a second-year Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine student a summer research fellowship. One of only 19 students from across the country to win a fellowship, Pratik Kanabur said he plans to put the prize to good use by studying new ways to potentially treat children’s malignant brain cancer in the laboratory of Assistant Professor Zhi Sheng at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

The Alpha Omega Alpha, the nation’s honor medical society established in 1902, also awarded Kanabur the Carolyn L. Kuckein Student Research Fellowship to support his research on glioblastoma multiforme — the most lethal adult brain cancer — in the Sheng laboratory for the next two years.

“Cancer research is always on the cutting edge, and the treatment modalities that are developed directly impact both pediatric and adult patients,” Kanabur said.

Sheng leads a comprehensive research program studying the mechanisms of glioblastoma multiforme and identifying new therapeutic strategies for targeting the deadly brain cancer. Sheng has mentored Kanabur for a year already, and Sheng will continue to oversee Kanabur’s research as he completes his medical degree.

“Pratik has demonstrated great productivity and commitment to his education and research,” said Sheng. “He is highly deserving of both awards, and he will definitely be able to accomplish his goals.”

Students at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine are expected to produce a research project of publication quality in a peer-reviewed scientific or medical journal. It’s part of the school’s mission to graduate scientist physicians with clinical skills as well as real-world experience, knowledge, and appreciation for the role of research in the development and delivery of health care.

Kanabur, who earned his undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2013, already understands the need for research in health care. He will assist Sheng in a project to test a recently developed treatment for pediatric and adult glioblastoma cells that have grown resistant to the commonly used chemotherapy drug temozolomide.

Glioblastomas are the deadliest type of brain tumors with an average prognosis of just over a year of life expectancy from time of initial diagnosis for most adult patients. Although childhood glioblastoma patients live much longer than adult patients, pediatric patients often experience treatment-associated long-term cognitive deficits and have a low quality of life.

“One of the reasons for tumor malignancy is a population of glioblastoma stem cells,” Kanabur said. “In this research study, we will examine whether glioblastoma stem cells from human-derived brain tumors can form new tumors in a murine model.”

If tumors form, the researchers will treat the cancer with a combination therapy of temozolomide and ACT1, a wound-healing drug discovered by Professor Robert Gourdie, a colleague of Sheng’s, and his team. The combination therapy has already been shown to effectively re-sensitize individual glioblastoma cells to chemotherapy drugs.

“This project is the next step in a long road to translate Dr. Sheng’s proof-of-principle work into a novel therapeutic agent against glioblastoma,” Kanabur said. “I hope, by performing this translational project, I can contribute a small part in the fight against cancer.”

Catherine Doss contributed to this report. 

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