University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign research team, from left, Kim Selting, Sara Pedron-Haba, and Catherine Best-Popescu, are recipients of grants from the Cancer Center at Illinois (CCIL) and the Elsa U. Pardee Foundation

A $25,000 grant from the Cancer Center at Illinois (CCIL) is catalyzing an interdisciplinary exploration of the relationship between neural networks and cancer cells in the brain. Led by CCIL member Sara Pedron-Haba, the team is studying glioblastoma at the nexus of neuroscience and oncology. CCIL member Kim Selting, an associate professor of veterinary clinical medicine, and Catherine Best-Popescu, professor of bioengineering, are co-PIs on this innovative project.

Building upon previous glioblastoma research collaborations with CCIL Program Leader Brendan Harley, Pedron-Haba wanted to step into the frontiers of understanding how neurons and cancer cells interact, prompting the application for a CCIL Planning Grant. Her research proposal, “Leverage of Biomaterial-Based Platforms in Cancer Neuroscience: Models for Multimodal Study of Radiotherapeutic Response in Brain Tumors.”

“I was interested in looking into the tumor microenvironment to see how neurons in the nervous system affect the development of tumors. It’s an incipient area of research. Our team will use our experience in neuroscience and oncology to better understand how neurons communicate with tumors,” said Pedron-Haba.

The 2023 CCIL planning grant was the first step for Pedron-Haba’s team, enabling follow-up work to generate a proof of concept, establish models, and publish data that would empower the team to pursue larger grants in the future. One such funding stream was the Elsa U. Pardee Foundation which provided the team a grant of $173,665 for their research proposal, “Use of Preclinical Models for the Implementation of More Precise Radiotherapeutic Approaches in Glioblastoma.” The Elsa U. Pardee Foundation funds the discovery of new approaches for cancer treatment and cure.

Pedron-Haba’s team also sent undergraduate researcher Joseph Mueller, a junior in chemical and biomolecular engineering, to the 2023 AACR Annual Meeting, where he presented early work on the team’s research: “Organotypic Models Reveal the Role of the Tumor Microenvironment in Glioblastoma Progression and Therapeutic Response.” The CCIL sponsored Mueller’s attendance at the AACR meeting.

“With Catherine’s sophisticated imaging instrumentation and expertise in neuroscience and artificial intelligence, along with Kim’s expertise in radiotherapy and access to cancer models in companion animals, our team will investigate how cancer cells interact with the healthy brain to improve treatments for patients with brain cancer,” said Pedron-Haba.

Editor’s notes:

Sara Pedron-Haba is a research assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, a Health Innovation Professor at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, a member of the Cancer Center at Illinois, and an affiliate of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. For more information on this research, contact

This story was written by Jonathan King, CCIL Communications Specialist