Bioengineering Faculty Contribute to New Treatment That “Halts Osteoarthritis-Like Knee Cartilage Degeneration”

A recent study published in Science Translational Medicine announces a discovery which could halt cartilage degeneration caused by osteoarthritis: “These researchers showed that they could target a specific protein pathway in mice, put it into overdrive and halt cartilage degeneration over time. Building on that finding, they were able to show that treating mice with surgery-induced knee cartilage degeneration through the same pathway via the state of the art of nanomedicine could dramatically reduce the cartilage degeneration and knee pain.” This development could eventually lead to treating osteoarthritis with injection rather than more complicated surgery.

Among a team of Penn Engineering and Penn Medicine researchers, the study was co-written by Zhiliang Chen, Research Associate Professor in Bioengineering, Andrew Tsourkas, Professor in Bioengineering, and Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor in Bioengineering and Orthopaedic Surgery. The lead author was Yulong Wei of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory.

Read the press release in Penn Medicine News.

Christian Figueroa-Espada Named 2020-2021 Hispanic Scholarship Fund Scholar

Christian Figueroa-Espada

Christian Figueroa-Espada, a Penn Bioengineering Ph.D. student and National Science Foundation (NSF) Fellow, was selected as a Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF) Scholar from a highly-competitive pool of 85,000 applicants for their 2020-2021 program. One of only 5,100 awardees, Figueroa-Espada’s scholarship comes from the Toyota Motor North America Program. As an HSF Scholar, he has access to a full range of Scholar Support Services, such as career coaching, internship, and full-time employment opportunities, mentoring, leadership development, and wellness resources, including tools for self-advocacy, well-being, and knowledge building.

Born and raised in the Island of Enchantment, Puerto Rico, Figueroa-Espada received his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, and is currently a second-year Ph.D. student in the lab of Michael J. Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, where he is funded by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP), the Graduate Education for Minorities (GEM) Fellowship Program, and the William Fontaine Fellowship. His research interests lie in the interface of biomaterials, drug delivery, and immunology – designing RNAi therapeutics for the reprogramming of the tumor microenvironment. His current project focuses on polymer-lipid drug delivery systems to study potential strategies to prevent homing and proliferation of multiple myeloma cancer within the bone marrow microenvironment. This project is part of the Mitchell lab’s recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) New Innovator Award.

“Chris has really hit the ground running on his Ph.D. studies at Penn Bioengineering, developing a new bone marrow-targeted nanoparticle platform to disrupt the spread of multiple myeloma throughout the body,” says Mitchell. “I’m very hopeful that this prestigious fellowship from HSF will permit him to make important contributions to nanomedicine and cancer research.”

Figueroa-Espada’s passion for giving back to his community has allowed him to be involved in many mentorship programs as part of his roles in the Society of Hispanics and Professional Engineers (SHPE), the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and the Graduate Association of Bioengineers (GABE). He continues with his fervent commitment, now working with the Penn chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), and the Penn Interdisciplinary Network for Scientists Promoting Inclusion, Retention, and Equity (INSPIRE) coalition where he plans on leading initiatives that aim to enhance diversity and student participation in science, especially students from historically marginalized groups.

“This fellowship, along with my NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, GEM Fellowship, and William Fontaine Fellowship through the University of Pennsylvania, make my research on nanoparticle-based RNA therapeutics for the reprogramming of the tumor microenvironment to treat malignancies and overcome drug resistance possible,” says Figueroa-Espada. “While my professional goal is to stay in academia and lead a research lab, my personal goal is to become whom I needed: a role model within the Latino STEM community, hoping to address many of the difficulties that impede Latino students’ success in higher education, and thanks to Toyota Motor/HSF, NSF, and GEM, I am one step closer to meeting these goals.”

Student Spotlight: Sonia Bansal

Sonia Bansal, Ph.D.

Next up in the Penn Bioengineering student spotlight series is Sonia Bansal. Sonia got her B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Columbia University in 2014. She then came to Penn, where she recently got her Ph.D. in September of 2020 in Bioengineering under the advisement of Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Professor of Bioengineering. Her dissertation is entitled “Functional and Structural Remodeling of the Meniscus with Growth and Injury” and focuses on the ways the knee meniscus changes while being actively loaded (growth) and under aberrant loading (injurious) conditions. She has presented her work internationally and has first authored four papers, with two more in preparation. She is passionate about K-12 STEM outreach and teaching at the collegiate level. She has been on the teaching team for six classes in the department, and is the first recipient of the Graduate Fellowship for Teaching Excellence from the Bioengineering department.

What drew you to the field of Bioengineering?
I first got interested in Bioengineering when I realized that it would let me merge my interests in biology and the human body with my desire to solve big questions by building and creating solutions. I applied to college knowing it was what I wanted to study.

What kind of research do you conduct, and what is the focus of your thesis?
My research is focused on the knee meniscus, specifically the impacts of its complex extracellular matrix and how that matrix changes during growth and after meniscal injury. My interests are largely translational, and in the future, I’d like to think about how we can use preclinical animal models to create effective therapeutics and drive clinical decision making in the orthopedic space.

What did you study for your undergraduate degree? How does it pair with the work you’re doing now, and what advice would you give to your undergraduate self?
I studied Biomedical Engineering during my undergraduate education and worked in cartilage tissue engineering. These experiences helped guide me to my Ph.D. work here at Penn. The two pieces of advice I’d give my undergraduate self is to ask for help and that it’s important to get more than five hours of sleep a night.

What’s your favorite thing to do on Penn’s campus or in Philly?
My favorite thing to do on campus was to read papers/write lectures/work on grants at a local coffee shop. I used to go to HubBub when it still existed, Saxby’s, and United By Blue.

Have you done or learned anything new or interesting during quarantine?
I have embarked on a journey in culinary fermentation (variety of pickles and sourdough, of course), and recently started homebrewing!

Ruby Washington: Poised to Make Her Mark in Bioengineering

by

Ruby Washington

Data show that healthcare disparities plague the Black community in America, making it harder to receive adequate treatment and care. But rather than just accepting the status quo, Ruby Washington, senior in the Department of Bioengineering, is dedicated to leveraging her interest in biomedicine to change outcomes and systems.

“I feel that I have a duty to help my community and make the healthcare system better for people who look like me,” she says.

That’s a challenge well suited to a woman who is both fascinated by the intersection of materials science and biology and dedicated to representing and leading a community of Black engineers.

Read the full story at Penn Engineering Today.

Alumni Spotlight: Lamis Elsawah

Lamis Elsawah (BSE 2019)

Lamis Elsawah graduated with a B.S.E. in Bioengineering with a concentration in Medical Devices in 2019. She is currently a Design Engineer at Johnson & Johnson’s DePuy Synthes. We caught up with Lamis to hear about why she chose Penn Bioengineering and what she enjoyed about the curriculum.

“Penn had been my dream school for years prior to even applying to college, so their having a top notch bioengineering program was icing on the cake when it was time for me to apply. Prior to applying, I actually had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Meaney (who was the Bioengineering Department Chair up until I graduated) the summer before my senior year in high school and he was always a constant support throughout my bioengineering education up until graduation. Since Bioengineering had less than 100 students per class, it really allowed us to develop that familial feel with our core Bioengineering professors and lab staff. I honestly don’t think I would have survived junior and senior year without the help of Sevile and the entire lab staff, so I will be forever grateful.

I always like to say that junior year labs are really what made me an engineer. Those were some of the most challenging classes I took, but it was really rewarding once I reached the end. Between those lab courses and Biomechatronics taught by Professor Dourte, it prepared me to become a design engineer and apply all that I had learned. I also had the opportunity to get my minor in Engineering Entrepreneurship and be taught by Professor Cassel, which increased my interest in the business side of developing medical devices. The combination of my studies ultimately led me to Imperial College, London where I received my Master’s in Medical Device Design and Entrepreneurship.

The bioengineering curriculum at Penn allowed me to have a vast knowledge of the field that I will always be grateful for. It not only provided me with the mechanical experience, but also the electrical and biological background. I plan on staying an active alumna in both the Engineering Alumni Society and the Penn Alumni Board as a result of my wonderful experience at Penn Engineering and Penn as a whole.”

This post is part of BE’s Alumni Spotlight series. Read more testimonies from BE Alumni on the BE website.

Engineering and Medicine Researchers Collaborate on Studies of Genome Folding in Health and Disease

(Left to right) Top row: Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins, Rajan Jain, and Eric Joyce. Middle row: Melike Lakadamyali, Golnaz Vahedi, and Gerd Blobel. Bottom row: Bomyi Lim, Arjun Raj, and Stanley Qi.

Popular accounts of the human genome often depict it as a long string of DNA base pairs, but in reality the genome is separated into chromosomes that are tightly twisted and coiled into complex three-dimensional structures. These structures create a myriad of connections between sites on the genome that would be distant from one another if stretched out end-to-end. These “long range interactions” are not incidental — they regulate the activity of our genes during development and can cause disease when disrupted.

Now two teams of researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, each led by Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins,  associate professor and Dean’s Faculty Fellow in the Department of Bioengineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Science and of Genetics at the Perelman School of Medicine have been awarded grants totaling $9 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as part of a major NIH Common Fund initiative to understand such 3D-genomic interactions.

The initiative, known as the 4D Nucleome Program, broadly aims to map higher-order genome structures across space and time, as well as to understand how the twists and loops of the DNA sequence govern genome function and cellular phenotype in health and disease.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

N.B.: In addition to Phillips-Cremins, collaborators include Arjun Raj, Professor in Bioengineering and Genetics, and Bioengineering Graduate Group Members Melike Lakadamyali, Associate Professor in Physiology, and Bomyi Lim, Assistant Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Penn Bioengineering’s Applicant-Support Program Supports “Underserved and Underrepresented Communities”

A recent piece in the Daily Pennsylvanian highlights Penn Bioengineering’s new Applicant-Support Program. Introduced for the Fall 2020 admissions cycle, this new program supports the department’s mission of increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion by pairing Ph.D. applicants to current doctoral students who will serve as a mentors to help navigate the process, give feedback on application materials, and provide other support to prospective students.

As Jason Andrechak, President of Penn’s Graduate Association of Association of Bioengineers (GABE) chapter, explains in the DP’s profile: “A lot of what a successful application looks like at this level is just knowing what a successful application looks like.” This and other new policies and programs implemented by GABE and Yale Cohen, Professor of Otorhinolaryngology, Neuroscience and Bioengineering and BE’s current Graduate Group Chair, seek to support applications from “underserved or underrepresented communities.”

Read the full story in the Daily Pennsylvanian.

Charting a Path Forward with Unifying Definition of Cytokine Storm

by Melissa Moody

Penn Medicine researchers have developed a unifying definition of ‘cytokine storm’ to provide a framework to assess and treat patients whose immune systems have gone rogue.

Penn Medicine’s David Fajgenbaum (left) and Carl June (right). (Image: Penn Medicine News)

One of the most elusive aspects for clinicians treating COVID-19 is the body’s immune response to the virus. In the most severe cases of COVID-19, the immune system goes into overdrive, resulting in a fever, multiorgan system damage, and often death—a cytokine storm. But how to detect and treat a cytokine storm requires that clinicians can identify it as such.

Two Penn Medicine researchers have developed a unifying definition of “cytokine storm” to provide physicians with a framework to assess and treat severely-ill patients whose immune systems have gone rogue. Cytokine storms can be triggered by different pathogens, disorders, or treatments, from COVID-19 to Castleman disease to CAR T cell therapy.

In a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine, David Fajgenbaum, an assistant professor of translational medicine & human genetics and director of the Center for Cytokine Storm Treatment & Laboratory (CSTL), and Carl June, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies in the Abramson Cancer Center, and the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapies define a cytokine storm as requiring elevated circulating cytokine levels, acute systemic inflammatory symptoms, and secondary organ dysfunction beyond what could be attributed to a normal response to a pathogen, if a pathogen is present.

“There has never been a defining central review of what a cytokine storm is and how to treat one, and now with COVID-19, that is a major issue,” says Fajgenbaum, a Castleman disease patient who has previously experienced five cytokine storms himself. “I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life as a cytokine storm patient and researcher, so I know the importance of having a comprehensive unified definition to find therapies that work across the various types of cytokine storms.”

There is widespread recognition that the immune response to a pathogen, but not the pathogen itself, can contribute to multiorgan dysfunction and other symptoms. Additionally, similar cytokine storm syndromes can occur with no obvious infection.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.

NB: Carl June is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Guest Post: Penn Bioengineering Lab Classes in the Time of Coronavirus

By Solumtochukwu (Somto) Egboga

Stephenson Lab student employees (L to R): Seth Fein (BSE 20, MSE 21), Nicole Wojnowski (BSE 22), and Somto Egboga (MSE 21)

Since the country began shutting down in March, I have joined the majority of the world in calling the times “unprecedented”: The word, which I rarely used before the pandemic, is now a staple of my lockdown lexicon. In March, we all got the email that changed the trajectory of the rest of our semester and the school year. Since then, COVID-19 has been impacting lives here at Penn, around the nation, and the world. Hanging out with friends and family on Zoom, managing work and school from home, social distancing, wearing masks everywhere, and constantly washing hands have been the reality of our new normal for months.

It has been almost ten months since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and this has posed a global crisis like nothing most of us have experienced in our lifetime. At Penn, the campus community including students and staff have rallied to keep each other safe, all while doing what is possible to ensure that lectures, teaching, and research are possible in ways that uphold the university’s mission of “strengthening the quality of education and producing innovative research and models of healthcare delivery by fostering a vibrant inclusive environment and fully embracing diversity.”

BE students Alexa Rybicki, Ifeoluwa Popoola, and Caitlin Frazee meet for BE 309 in the Gather.Town virtual lab space.

In Penn Engineering’s Bioengineering Department, the Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace has been at the heart of ensuring that lab-based classes run as smoothly as possible given the circumstances. First off, during the summer, the lab launched a Slack site that not only kept students engaged and connected through fun, daily “Questions of the Day” but also gave them the opportunity to reach out to our staff and obtain their expertise for coursework and personal projects. The staff at the Stephenson Lab also supported and continue to support Senior Design students (BE 495) with their projects by ordering, receiving, packaging, arranging pickups, or mailing supplies needed to complete their Senior Design projects. In addition, class time takes place using Gather.Town to recreate our Bio-MakerSpace virtually. In other classes, video tutorials of some of the experiments students were missing out on were produced over the summer and made available to students so they could learn by seeing what the lab staff were doing in the videos. For the Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis, and Design (BE MAD) class (BE 309), in addition to videos, our lab Engineer, Michael Patterson, developed software through which students can enter design criteria and have experimental data emailed to them.

Picking up lab supplies outside in the Engineering complex

The staff at the lab also supported a Rehabilitation Engineering course (BE 514) taught by Michelle Johnson, Associate Professor in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Bioengineering, by putting together supplies that enabled students in the class to reengineer toy bunny rabbits to be more accessible to children with disabilities. Optical Microscopy (BE 518), another Bioengineering course, taught by Christopher Fang-Yen, Associate Professor in Bioengineering and Neuroscience, offers students an introduction to the fundamental concepts of optics and microscopy. The staff at the lab put together kits and made them available for pickup by the students in the class.

In a time when the shape of education looks vastly different from what we anticipated this year, the Bio-MakerSpace has been instrumental in ensuring that students still have access to resources that make their learning experience an enriching one. In these unprecedented times, the lab has been able to encourage students to keep up and be engaged with their coursework while also fostering creativity in students, virtually and remotely. While we may not know what life after the pandemic will look like, one thing to be sure of is that the Stephenson Lab will always be a reliable place for Penn students to get support for personal projects and coursework when needed.

Solumtochukwu (Somto) Egboga is a Master’s Student in Bioengineering, graduating December 2020. She also is a student employee for the Stephenson Foundation Bioengineering Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace.

Student Spotlight: David Alanis Garza

David Alanis Garza (BSE & BS 2021)

The Penn Bioengineering student spotlight series continues with David Alanis Garza. David is a senior from Monterrey, Mexico finishing his dual degree in Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Health Care Management at the Wharton School, with minors in Chemistry and Math. He currently serves as the Captain of the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT), managing clinical operations and the organization’s response to COVID-19. He is also a Penn tour guide and a member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. In his free time, he enjoys mountain climbing, camping, and playing guitar.

What drew you to the field of Bioengineering?

I first became interested in BE during my high school physics class, in which my teacher motivated our lesson in electromagnetism by explaining the basics behind an MRI machine and how defibrillators are basically glorified capacitors. I realized that my lifelong dream to be a surgeon would best be served if I armed myself with a scalpel and screwdriver alike. With the fast paced advances in the medical field, the best physicians must not only understand the underlying pathophysiology of disease, but also how to interact with and keep up with innovations in the biomedical engineering field. At Penn, I have enjoyed discovering that BE is much more wide than what I initially appreciated.

Have you ever done research with a professor on campus? What did you like, and what didn’t you like about it?

I have had the opportunity to work in the Center for Resuscitation Science on a research project investigating diagnostic patterns in the electrocardiogram of Pulseless Electrical Activity (PEA). I truly enjoyed the opportunity to take on more responsibility as the first author of the manuscript we are currently working on, and learned so much about communication in science when presenting the research during American Heart Association’s Resuscitation Science Symposium this last weekend. What I learned in Bioengineering, especially in BE 309/310 (Lab) and BE 301 (Signals and Systems), has been incredibly useful for my research. I am also currently completing a Wharton senior thesis exploring how financial derivative securities could be used to hedge risk in emergency departments. Penn is incredibly supportive of students seeking to gain more research experience, offering an abundance of opportunities for guided and independent projects. I truly enjoyed the opportunity of finding answers to very specific questions in my fields, as well as the valuable relationships with my mentors I formed along the way.

What have been some of your favorite courses and/or projects in Bioengineering so far?

BE 305 (Engineering Principles of Human Physiology) has been my favorite course at Penn. In this class, we were able to understand, quantify, and hack the body’s physiology through an engineering lens. From building a pulseoximeter with our phone cameras, to determining the blood volume of the left ventricle over time with MRI images, this class was very much hands on. A close second is BE 301 (Bioengineering Signals and Systems). I hadn’t previously grasped how this discipline was relevant to medicine until this class, but now I find myself applying what I learned in my research. Lastly, as many other BE students will tell you, the human-cockroach machine interface project in BE lab has been one of my most challenging and rewarding undertakings at Penn. Our team linked a wearable device that measured the forearms position and muscle contractions, so that when the wearer painted a picture, a cockroach leg would be moved and stimulated to paint an imitation of the image. Overcoming my phobia of cockroaches and the countless hours of trial and error were all worth it, for I can now brag about how my team made an artist out of a cockroach leg.

What advice would you give to your freshman self?

It is a great idea to identify which area of BE research you are interested in, and plan your academics so that you can take the closely related courses early on. This will empower you to conduct research with greater responsibilities or give you marketable skills that employers may look for when hiring for internships of your interest. BE upperclassmen are always willing to help, so feel free to reach out to us for any advice.

What do you hope to pursue after obtaining your undergraduate degree?

I will be taking a gap year in which I will be working in the area of hospital administration and clinical engineering before I begin my medical school journey. As of right now, I am interested in specializing in emergency medicine or surgery, but I know my interests may change as my understanding of medicine grows throughout the next years.

Have you done or learned anything new or interesting during quarantine?
The COVID pandemic gave me a unique opportunity to manage the clinical operations of MERT’s emergency medical services during an unprecedented challenge. As a result, I learned a lot about how different hospitals and health care systems are managing their response, not to mention the standard protocols to ensure the safety and wellness of our patients and providers. On a less professional note, I have been able to get a bit better at chess and guitar.