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Aniqua Rahman

College: City College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2014

Stopping Cancer in its Tracks

If scientists could learn how to stop cancerous cells from spreading from a primary tumor site through the body (a process called metastasis), they might be closer to curtailing this disease. But how, exactly, do those cells spread?

Aniqua Rahman (City College, B.E.in biomedical engineering, 2013) hopes to find the answers with the support of a 2014 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Now a Cornell University biomedical engineering doctoral student, she intends to create microscale models using collagen, a common mammalian protein called the glue that holds the body together.

Using microfabrication technology, she intends to mimic the hollow, tube-like microtracks that the first metastatic cancer cells (leader cells) create when they use enzymes to burrow out of a primary tumor through collagen. Subsequent follower cells use these microtracks as their invasion highway. Rahman intends to investigate the migration mechanisms of follower cells, hoping to identify approaches that will inhibit metastasis by way of collagen microtracks.

She hypothesizes that previous attempts to thwart migrating cells have failed because microtracks had formed before researchers tried to block the burrowing enzymes, known as matrix metalloproteinases.

Her three-year agenda starts with developing a physical model using collagen and silicon molds, which will shape channels as small as 15 microns wide (about the size of white blood cells). Since cancer cells may adhere to microtracks as they migrate, her second step is to understand and characterize this process by introducing breast cancer cells. Her third step will investigate the mechanism by which cancer cells leave the tumor to see whether leader cells leave physical cues to guide follower cells.

Rahman, who was born in Bangladesh and moved to Queens during her senior year of high school, says she always knew she wanted to do something related to medicine and engineering. Working with direction from her mentor at City College, associate professor Steven B. Nicoll, she spent her junior and senior years studying how hydrogels (water-soluble polymer chains) might be used to deliver drugs and proteins. “I developed all of my basic skills there,” she says, “like cell culturing technique, which my current research requires now.”

The National Science foundation Graduate Research Fellowship is the most prestigious for graduate studies in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. This federal grant provides $132,000 over three years for doctoral-level research.