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Director Named for Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC Cancer Research Center

An accomplished biomedical engineer who studies the biophysical setting of brain cancer has been named director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC’s Cancer Research Center in Roanoke, Virginia.

Jennifer Munson will organize the institute’s Cancer Research Center in Roanoke, while closely collaborating with its Cancer Research Center in Washington, D.C., said Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology and executive director of the research institute.

“Dr. Munson is the ideal person to assume this important new leadership role,”Friedlander said. “She is an insightful and talented scientist who utilizes a combination of laboratory experimental approaches and computational tools to better understand the dynamics of cancers, including brain tumors. Her combined approach employs mathematically rigorous models, a range of engineering tools, and biological experimentation to converge on unique and potentially powerful new strategies for developing individualized therapeutics.”

A fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biomedical Engineering and the Biomedical Engineering Society and a professor of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute (FBRI), Munson collaborates with clinicians, veterinarians, engineers, and biologists.

“This multi- and interdisciplinary approach is needed to identify and validate innovations to treat some of the deadliest cancers such as malignant primary brain tumors,” Friedlander said. “This unique perspective benefits not only her own research program, it informs her in this new role as a mentor and leader for our other cancer research teams at the research institute as well as those we will be recruiting in coming years.”

Also a faculty member of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering, Munson focuses on interstitial fluid flow in the spaces between cells within brain tissue to understand cancer’s invasion, a major impediment to treatment success. She was recently named a co-director of the newly designated Focused Ultrasound Foundation Center of Excellence at Virginia Tech.

In brain cancer, interstitial flow increases, specifically across the invasive edge of the tumor, where cells are prone to both interact with the surrounding brain tissue and evade treatment. Her work is supported by the Red Gates Foundation, the National Cancer Institute, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institute on Aging, and the Ivy Foundation among others.

Her lab particularly focuses on finding ways to make tumors more vulnerable to standard of care therapies. Recently, she co-founded a company called Cairina Inc. to translate her research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute into practical health solutions.

Munson will promote and encourage cancer research while also helping to mentor early career cancer research faculty team leaders.

“My mission has revolved around pioneering new tools and treatments toward developing a better understanding of cancer that can be brought bench-to-bedside,” Munson said. “I am excited to take on this role to grow cancer research at Virginia Tech. I especially look forward to bringing researchers to FBRI who want to build inter-disciplinary and translational research programs that can impact patients. I hope to leverage our unique collaborative community across Virginia to yield innovation in cancer research while providing a supportive environment to train future scientists and engineers.”

The institute’s Cancer Research Center in Roanoke pairs with the its Cancer Research Center – D.C., directed by Christopher Hourigan, professor with the research institute and with the Department of Internal Medicine of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.

“While Dr. Munson and Dr. Hourigan each hold the primary center leadership role for cancer research at their respective sites in Roanoke and Washington, D.C., I expect that there will be considerable collaboration and interaction such that there will emerge a single unified impact on the development of new cancer preventions, diagnostics and therapeutics from the overall innovations of these two enterprises,” Friedlander said.

Six additional faculty-led cancer research teams are at the Cancer Research Center in Roanoke, including those led by Carla Finkielstein, Roberta Freitas-Lemos, Samy Lamouille, DaeYong Lee, Zhi Sheng, and Fred Wu. These are in addition to teams led by Kathleen Mulvaney, Jia-Ray Yu, and Hourigan.

Both of the FBRI’s Cancer Research Center sites are made possible through the support of the Red Gates Foundation. Alongside the two Cancer Research Centers, Friedlander said the university will continue to expand its Cancer Research Alliance, which promotes interactions with cancer researchers from throughout Virginia Tech and collaborating institutions and health systems.

“We are increasing the potential for Virginia Tech to make a significant global impact,” Friedlander said. “I expect that the university’s continued ascendance in global distinction, particularly in the biomedical and health sciences, will be facilitated by our major growth in cancer research.”

By John Pastor

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