Omid Forouzan: Microfluidics allows for close study of virus-host interactions

Viruses are thought to cause between 15-20% of cancer cases worldwide.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a particularly well-known offender that can lead to cervical cancer, the second most frequent cancer in women and third leading cause of cancer death for women worldwide.

Omid Forouzan, as part of the new Morgridge Fellowship program, wants to harness engineering and biomedical fields to develop a microfluidic multi-cell culture model. This microscale research tool will allow for study of cell-cell interactions in the development of HPV-associated cervical cancer.

“Tumor microenvironment is an important emerging area in cancer research and microfluidic technology is a powerful tool that enables us to model the complexity of the tumor microenvironment under precisely controlled conditions,” says Forouzan. “While microfluidics has been widely used to investigate the interactions between cancer cells and their surroundings, we want to develop a micro-scale platform to investigate virus-host interactions in the context of cancer.”

As part of this effort, Forouzan is working with two top Madison investigators: Dave Beebe, director of the Microtechnology, Medicine and Biology Laboratory, and Paul Ahlquist, Morgridge Institute for Research director of virology.

Beebe and his lab, with their biomedical engineering expertise, have pioneered the development of microscale tools for studying tumor microenvironments; the Ahlquist group has expertise in cancer virology and biology, and part of their work is devoted to HPV specifically.

Though the first step is to develop the microfluidics tool for research, the project doesn’t end there.

“After we develop the platform, the next step is to use it to better understand how the virus interacts with host cells,” says Forouzan. “We can apply this knowledge to improve treatment strategies or come up with new ways of preventing these interactions, seizing the effect of the virus.”

Forouzan started his academic career in mechanical engineering, though always knew he wanted to apply his knowledge to biology and medicine. This led him to study biomedical engineering, but his graduate studies still focused primarily on the engineering side of the interdisciplinary field. Forouzan says he is eager to gain more of the biological perspective.

“As a biomedical engineer, I’m always eager to learn and discover how engineering principles can be applied to address real-world biological questions,” Forouzan says.

“This is a game-changing opportunity for me, and I’m really excited to bring my engineering expertise to the virology lab,” says Forouzan. “In addition to the major impact of this fellowship on my career development, it will bridge research across disciplines between two prominent labs and I’m very excited to be a part of this highly interdisciplinary collaboration.”