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Zerin Mahzabin Khan: Research can save brain cancer patients’ lives

The following story was written in April 2021 by Zihao Li in ENGL ​4824​: Science Writing ​as part of a collaboration between the English department and the Center for Communicating Science.

The most aggressive type of brain cancer found in adults is called glioblastoma multiforme. More than 90 percent of diagnosed patients die within two years, even with a combination of traditional treatments. These types of standard, conventional methods are not working on this fatal brain cancer. 

    Zerin Mahzabin Khan’s research goal is to develop a method to ensure that glioblastoma multiforme does not come back after surgery.

    “For some types of cancer, you can almost treat it like a chronic disease instead of like a terminal disease,” Khan explained. “But for glioblastoma, it is still one of the most difficult cancers to treat. Doing this research can save lives.”

    When a brain tumor is surgically removed, there is a hole left, and some cancer cells remain. Khan is working to create a gel that can fill this space. She and her team hope to use a combination of electric field and chemical gradients to pull those wandering, leftover cancer cells into this gel-filled area. Once the cells are concentrated and trapped by gel, researchers can use focused ultrasound technology to kill them.

This photo shows a young woman dressed in black slacks, a black jacket, and a pink blouse standing under a sign that reads "2019 Annual Meeting BMES Miomedical Engineering Society." Behind her is a large room with a blue carpet and "Registration" on the wall. She has black hair, glasses, and medium brown skin.
Zerin Mahzabin Khan, a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech – Wake Forest University, at the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) Annual Meeting in 2019. Photo courtesy of Zerin Khan.

    Khan is a third-year Ph.D. student studying biomedical engineering in the Virginia Tech - Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences (SBES) program, a joint program between the two universities. She is stationed on the Virginia Tech campus and conducts all her research at Virginia Tech.

    Before becoming a Hokie at Virginia Tech, Khan completed double degrees in biochemistry and chemical engineering at the University of Ottawa. She has fond memories from this hybrid, multidisciplinary background and has discovered that it offers unique research opportunities. When she came to Virginia Tech during a graduate recruiting weekend, she met three faculty members whose research interested her.

    Khan was surprised that all three wanted to take her on as a student. But even more surprisingly, instead of letting her choose one advisor, the researchers decided to begin a collaborative project together, which explains why her research contains three primary components: polymer gel, electric field, and ultrasound technology. 

    When Khan joined the three labs, she discovered large research groups made up of many students with different advisors. Students helping each other is the tradition in these research groups. A new graduate student will have a mentor, usually the senior graduate student in the lab, to guide the research. When these “new” graduate students become senior, they become mentors. Khan appreciates her mentor’s help very much, and she is looking forward to serving as a mentor herself in the labs. 

This photo shows 13 young adults lined up in two rows, posing for the picture and smiling at the camera. There appear to be 9 women and 4 men, most are Caucasian, one is very dark skinned with black hair, and one is brown skinned with black hair. Those whose legs are visible are dressed in jeans with the exception of one person wearing a skirt.
Khan with other members of the Vlaisavljevich lab. Photo from

    “Given my background, interdisciplinary work, and my undergrad [education], I really enjoy the aspect of combining different fields,” Khan said. “This project gives me a lot of opportunities to delve into different areas and learn a lot and also work with many different people who have different expertise and backgrounds – together working on projects, conducting research, and co-authoring papers.”

    Because of her background, Khan’s research can contain different stages with multiple topics: chemistry, cancer biology, and engineering. At present, her experiment focuses on optimizing the gel and determining the gel toxicity.

    But her research and experiments do not always go smoothly or as expected. Because the cells have a life of their own, they sometimes do not behave the way the researchers expect them to. These unexpected behaviors may be frustrating, but they also may yield interesting, new findings.

    “It’s important just to investigate further and experiment again to be sure,” Khan laughed. “That is part of the process and my daily research life.”

    Khan and her team have currently filed a provisional patent application through Virginia Tech and therefore have a pending patent. Khan is finishing the last experiment for publishing their first paper. Khan also has presented this work at local, regional, and national conferences.

This photo shows a young woman wearing a white lab coat, white face mask, and gray gloves seated on a red office chair in front of a fume hood. She has black hair, glasses, and brown skin and is looking directly at the camera.
Khan pipetting samples in a laboratory Biosafety Cabinet. Photo courtesy of Barath Udayasuryan.

    “When I am doing research, I can kind of think about, okay, the end outcomes for patients to help improve people's lives,” Khan said. “That kind of thinking when you are doing your research, I find it rewarding. At the end of the day, the main goal of this project and our work is to help glioblastoma patients increase their chances of surviving and fighting this devastating disease.”

    After optimizing the gel, Khan and her team will establish the proof of principle for this concept to help treat glioblastoma. The immediate future goal is to test the efficacy of the gel’s ability to capture cancer cells and control cancer cell movement.

    If this method can work for glioblastoma, the research team plans to apply the technique to other types of cancers. In 2020 alone, an estimated 23,890 adults (13,590 men and 10,300 women) and 3,540 children under the age of 15 in the United States were diagnosed with primary cancerous tumors in their brains (American Society of Clinical Oncology statistics). As Khan continues her research, she may be able to help these and other patients.

This photo shows 11 young adults from the waist up, leaning on a wall with their hands folded in front of them and smiling at the camera. Six appear to be women and five men, and a variety of nationalities and ethnicities/races are represented. Behind them on the wall is a banner that reads "The Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science."
Khan with other members of the Verbridge lab. Photo from