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Johns Hopkins University
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Baltimore, Maryland 21231
Phone: 443-287-9960 | Fax: 443-287-9920

April 18, 2008
CONTACT: Phil Sneiderman

Undergrad Helps Create 3-D Images of
Brain Tumor Blood Vessels

Research Could Provide Scientists with a Better View
of How Cancers Grow

A Johns Hopkins undergraduate has identified and digitally modeled different anatomical regions on highly detailed 3-D images of mouse brains, as part of a larger research project aimed at giving scientists a much better look at the blood vessel networks that feed deadly brain tumors.

With support from a university research grant for undergraduates, Shahed Alam has been working with a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine team that is using MRI microscopy data to produce high-resolution 3-D computer renderings of the blood vessel "architecture" in a brain tumor model. Because cancer cells are typically accompanied by abnormal blood vessel growth or angiogenesis, the digital images, called "virtual casts," could help scientists understand the evolution of angiogenesis, its effects on image contrast and the effectiveness of anti-angiogenic treatments. The researchers, led by Arvind Pathak, an assistant professor of radiology and oncology, are refining these techniques in pre-clinical models of brain tumors.

Alam's work was among 45 Johns Hopkins student projects that were honored recently during the 15th annual Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards ceremony, hosted by Kristina Johnson, university provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.

Shahed Alam and 
Arvind Pathak
Shahed Alam (with adviser Arvind Pathak, left) produced 'stellar' images of brain structures that will allow researchers to better study networks of blood vessels.
Photo by Will Kirk

Alam, a junior majoring in biomedical engineering, learned about this research area when he enrolled in an imaging tutorial that Pathak offers to Johns Hopkins undergraduates. After completing the tutorial, Alam asked if he could join Pathak's lab team. "I wanted to apply what I had learned," said Alam, who is from the Houston suburb of Clear Lake, Tex. "Dr. Pathak asked me to create my own image quantification program. I had never done any computer programming, so I had to learn it basically from scratch. Moreover, Dr. Pathak never let me use other people's solutions to the problems I ran into. I had to come up with my own."

Pathak was pleased with the results. "Shahed exhibited tremendous potential and completed the project successfully," he said. "I was particularly impressed by his persistence when tackling challenging technical problems." As a result, Pathak agreed to serve as Alam's faculty sponsor in the university's Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards program.

The funds he received through this program allowed Alam to remain in Baltimore last summer to continue working in Pathak's lab on an advanced project. Using MRI microscopy, Pathak and his collaborators — Jianyang Zhang, an assistant professor of radiology, and Melina Jones, a neurology research associate — acquired detailed images of intact mouse brains in which tumors were present. Alam's job was to digitally isolate specific areas or structures within the brain, such as the cerebellum or the hippocampus, and produce highly detailed 3-D computer models of these tissues, digital replicas that can be viewed from a variety of angles. This allows researchers to study the way networks of blood vessels appear on MRI images in these structures, including the tumor. "One of our goals," Pathak said, "is to see if anti-angiogenic therapy, which tries to block the formation of new blood vessels that support cancer cells, can restore the blood vessels to their normal architecture."

The faculty member said Alam learned to produce "stellar" images of brain structures and that the undergraduate will be listed a co-author on an upcoming journal article related to the team's research.

For Alam, who hopes to become a physician, the opportunity to do hands-on research in Pathak's lab has been particularly rewarding. "It's so inspiring to be around such advanced science and technology. Sometimes, I feel overwhelmed," Alam said. "I really find it to be a humbling experience to work with these great scientists. My goal has always been to be a doctor who is mainly involved in patient care, but this experience has inspired me to continue biomedical research as well."

Since 1993, about 40 Johns Hopkins students each year have received Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards grants of up to $3,000 to conduct original research. Some have published their results in professional journals or presented them at scientific conferences. The awards, funded through a donation from the Hodson Trust, are an important part of the university's commitment to provide research opportunities for undergraduates. The awards are open to students in each of the university's four schools with full- time undergraduates: the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Whiting School of Engineering, the Peabody Conservatory and the School of Nursing.

Pathak's research is supported by a Toshiba Medical Systems/RSNA Research Seed Grant and a career development award from the Johns Hopkins University In Vivo Cellular and Molecular Imaging Center.

Color images of Shahed Alam and Arvind Pathak available; contact Phil Sneiderman.