Week in BioE (June 14, 2019)

by Sophie Burkholder

Bio-inspiration Informs New Football Helmet Design from IUPUI Students

Art, design, biology, and engineering all interact with each other in a recent design for a football helmet from two students one of media arts and the other of engineering at the Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis. Directed by Lecturer in Media Arts and Science Zebulun Wood, M.S., and Associate Professor of Mechanical and Energy Engineering and Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Andres Tovar, Ph.D., the students found inspiration in biological structures like a pomelo peel, nautilus shell, and woodpecker skull to create energy-absorbing helmet liners. The resulting design took these natural concussion-reducing structures and created compliant mechanism lattice-based liners the replace the foam traditionally placed in between two harder shells of a typical helmet. Their work not only exemplifies the benefits of bio-inspiration, but demonstrates the way that several different domains of study can overlap in the innovation of a new product.

Study of Mechanical Properties of Hyaluronic Acid Could Help Inform Current Debates Over Treatment Regulation for Osteoarthritis

Arthritis is an extremely common condition, especially in older patients, in which inflammation of the joints can cause high amounts of stiffness and pain. Osteoarthritis in particular is the result of the degradation of flexible tissue between the bones of a joint, which increases friction in joint motion. A common treatment of this form of arthritis is the injection of hyaluronic acid, which is meant to provide joint lubrication, and decreases this friction between bones. Recently, however, there has been a debate over hyaluronic acid’s classification by the FDA and whether it should remain based on the knowledge of the mechanical actions of the acid in treatment for osteoarthritis or if potential chemical action of the acid should be considered as well.

Because of limited ways of testing the mechanical properties of the acid, many researchers felt that there could be more to hyaluronic acid’s role in pain relief for arthritic patients. But Lawrence Bonassar, Ph.D., the Daljit S. and Elaine Sarkaria Professor in Biomedical Engineering at the Meinig School of Bioengineering of Cornell University, had another idea. With his lab, he created a custom-made tribometer to measure the coefficient of friction of a given lubricant by rubbing a piece of cartilage back and forth across a smooth glass plate. The research demonstrated that hyaluronic acid’s ability to reduce the coefficient of friction aligned with patients’ pain relief. Bonassar and his team hope that these results will demonstrate the heavy contribution of mechanical action that hyaluronic acid has in osteoarthritis treatment, and help bring an end to the debate over its FDA classification.

A New Way of Mapping the Heart Could Lead to Better Understanding of Contractile Activity

Though reduced contractions in certain regions of the heart can be an indicator of a certain condition, there is currently no way to directly measure contractile activity. This is why Cristian Linte, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), hopes to create a map of the heart that can quantify contraction power. In collaboration with Niels Otani, Ph.D., an Associate Professor in the School of Mathematics at RIT, Linte plans to use an $850,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of the heart through both medical imaging and mechanical modeling. The group hopes that their approach will lead to not only a better way to diagnose certain heart conditions and diseases, but also open up understanding of active contraction, passive motion, and the stresses within the heart walls that underlie each.

Celebrity Cat Lil Bub Helps Penn and German Researchers Draw Public Attention to Genetics

Lil Bub’s unique appearance has garnered millions of online fans, and now, an avenue for researchers to talk about genetics. (Photo Courtesy of Mike Bridavsky)

In 2015, a group of curious researchers set out to sequence the genome of a celebrity cat named Lil Bub. They were hoping to understand the genetics behind Lil Bub’s extra toes and unique skeletal structure, which contribute to her heart-warming, kitten-like appearance. However, an equally important goal of their “LilBUBome” project was to invite the general public into the world of genetics.

Orsolya “Uschi” Symmons, a postdoctoral researcher at Penn in Associate Professor of Bioengineering Arjun Raj’s lab, led the research team along with Darío Lupiáñez at the Max-Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, and Daniel Ibrahim at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Geneticsin Berlin. Lil Bub’s owner, Mike Bridavsky, also contributed to the project.

Because of Lil Bub’s online fame, the project garnered attention from her fans and the media, all hoping to discover the secret to Lil Bub’s charm. As early as 2015, Gizmodo’s Kiona Smith-Strickland reported on the team’s intentions to sequence Lil Bub’s genome, and, since then, many have been awaiting the results of the LilBUBome.

To read more of this story, visit Penn Engineering’s Medium Blog.

People and Places

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation awarded a six-year grant to Barnard College and Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science to support graduate education for women in engineering. The funding will go towards a new five-year program that enables Barnard students to attain both a B.A. and M.S. in one year after their traditional four years of undergraduate education. The program will offer M.S. degrees in chemical engineering, biomedical engineering, and industrial engineering and operations research, and is one of the first of its kind for women’s colleges.

We would like to congratulate Jean Paul Allain, Ph.D., on being named the first head of the new Ken and Mary Alice Lindquist Department of Nuclear Engineering at Penn State. Allain, who is currently a Professor and head of graduate programs in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering, conducts research in models of particle-surface interactions. In addition to being head of the new department at Penn State, Allain will also hold a position as a Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the university.

We would also like to congratulate Andrew Douglas, Ph.D., on his appointment as the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs at Johns Hopkins University. Douglas currently holds the position of Vice Dean for Faculty at the Whiting School of Engineering, and has joint appointments in Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering. Douglas’s research at Hopkins focuses on mechanical properties and responses of compliant biological tissue and on the nonlinear mechanics of solids, with a focus on soft tissues and organs like the heart and tongue.

Dan Huh’s Organs-on-Chips and Organoids: Best of Both Worlds

By Lauren Salig

Dan Huh, the Wilf Family Term Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, focuses his research on creating organs-on-chips: specially manufactured micro-devices with human cells that mimic the natural cellular processes of organs. Huh’s lab has engineered chips that approximate the functioning of placentas and lung disease, some of which were launched into space in May. Most recently, Huh published a review of organ-on-a-chip technology in the journal Science with graduate students Sunghee Estelle Park and Andrei Georgescu.

The June 2019 issue of Science is a special issue centered around the science of growing human organ models in the laboratory. Such in vitro organs are known as organoids; they grow and develop much like organs do in the body, as opposed to Huh’s organs-on-chips, in which cells from the relevant organs are grown within a fabricated device that imitates some of the organ’s functions and natural environment.

In a video accompanying the review article, Huh explains how organoid and organ-on-a-chip technologies differ and the advantages that accompany each approach:

Unlike Organ-on-a-Chip, which are heavily engineered man-made systems, organoids allow us to mimic the complex of the human body in a more natural way. So organoids represent a more realistic model, but they have problems because they develop in a highly variable fashion and it’s not very easy to control their environment. So we think that Organ-on-a-Chip Technology is a promising solution to many of these problems.

Read Huh, Park, and Georgescu’s review article at Science.

Originally posted on the Penn Engineering Medium blog.

César de la Fuente Named One of GEN’s ‘Top 10 Under 40’

Cesar de la Fuente-Nunez, PhD

César de la Fuente, assistant professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Microbiology in the Perelman School of Medicine and the Department of Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, has been listed as one of the top 10 emerging professionals in his field under the age of 40 by GEN, a publication that covers genetic engineering and biotechnology news. The list recognizes up-and-coming leaders in the field of life sciences, both in industry and academia.

De la Fuente, who started at Penn earlier this year, was recognized because he “is pioneering the computerization of biological systems for the development of transformative biotechnologies designed to solve societal grand challenges such as antibiotic resistance.”

Read the full story at the Penn Engineering Medium blog.

BE Freshmen Present Their Final Projects

On May 8, 2019, first year Bioengineering students at the University of Pennsylvania gathered together for a marathon two-hour session in which no fewer than twenty-one groups presented the results of their final projects. These projects were the culmination of two semesters’ work in the courses BE 100 and 101, the department’s year-long introduction to Bioengineering. The topics were as diverse and creative as the students, ranging from medical devices and pediatric monitors to plant-care and diagnostic apps. They covered a variety of issues and needs, including tools to help the blind; lockboxes that incorporate breathalyzers (to stop you getting to your keys when intoxicated); mechanisms to sense epileptic seizures and monitor heart rate; and more. Each group had only four minutes to present the research, concept, and results of their project and give a brief demonstration.  In the end, the entire class voted and two clear winners emerged. In first place was Group R7 with Heart Guide, a heart-shaped ultrasonic collision device for the blind. Group R3 came in second place with Pulsar the Robot, an adorable pediatric heart rate monitor. The course’s instructor, Dr. Michael Rizk, ended by saying that all of the students should be very proud of their work and that these final projects and the skills learned in year one are the foundation on which the rest of their BE curriculum will be based.

Congratulations to all of our first years on their amazing work. Check out some photos of their impressive work below! For more information on the Penn Bioengineering Undergraduate Curriculum, visit the department website. Most BE student projects are created in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Education Laboratory and “Bio-MakerSpace”, the department’s primary teaching lab.

APOC in Ghana: May 29th

In this series of posts, University of Pennsylvania students who took the spring 2019 APOC (Appropriate Point of Care Diagnostics) course write about their experience traveling to Ghana in May-June 2019.

by Allaire Morgan (Electrical Engineering, ’22)

Today, the team took various field trips related to water supply and public health. After being picked up on the bus, we drove for about an hour through the busy (and bumpy) streets of Kumasi to the Barakese Headworks of Ghana Water Company Limited. We spent the majority of the morning and early afternoon on a tour of the plant, following in chronological order the retrieval and treatment of water from the reservoir.

Upon walking up to the dam, the roar of the water was powerful. We went into a garage-like building which housed the four large pumps from the dam, pumping water uphill for further processing. After climbing approximately five stories on a shaky ladder, we reached the top of the dam to observe the reservoir from which the Ghana Water Company extracts its water. From there, our team ventured up the hill to observe the water treatment plant.

With the sun beating down, we slowly made our way through the facility, observing each stage of the treatment process in which millions of gallons of water were being treated at a time. The first stage, aeration, takes about six hours to complete. From there, water is pumped into giant drums for sedimentation, where water is stirred and polymers are added to force harmful chemicals to settle at the bottom. Clean water then slowly rises up in the million-gallon drum, with the clean water spilling over the edges to be collected and further processed in large sand filters. The sludge at the bottom of the drum is currently pumped back into the river, which may propose a serious public health problem in the future. The team then followed our guide into the labs, where we observed the various tests which are performed daily on the water after treatment to ensure proper sanitation. Lab technicians perform chemical experiments and culture the water to ensure that water-borne diseases cannot be carried by the filtered water.

After learning so much at the treatment plant, the team jumped on the bus to escape the heat and then traveled, after lunch, to the Komfo Akoye Teaching Hospital to observe the patient intake process in the hypertension clinic. We watched carefully in small groups from the corner of each doctor’s office to see how patients are treated and diagnosed. The doctors see around twenty to thirty patients per day, but on worse days they can see up to forty, with around two being new referrals from peripheral clinics. After speaking with the patient, the doctor makes a prescription recommendation on the patient’s paper file and gives it to the nurse for further processing. Each patient has a paper book which contains all of their medical data and history since coming to the hospital, and they retrieve it from a records room every time they visit. When asked about digitizing the process, the nurses were surprisingly resistant, arguing that they already were used to the paper filing system and they do not have the proper training to efficiently use a computer to file records.

After a long day of observations, the team traveled back to the guest house to eat dinner. Over our meal of pizza , spring rolls, and ambiguous but delicious juice, we discussed the events of the day and refocused our project, ironing out a specific plan for how we want to design our program and creating a vision for its implementation. We went to bed exhausted from a long day’s work but motivated for the project developments to come.

APOC in Ghana: May 26th

In this series of posts, University of Pennsylvania students who took the spring 2019 APOC (Appropriate Point of Care Diagnostics) course write about their experience traveling to Ghana in May-June 2019.

by Aime Bienfait Igiraneza (Computer Science, ’20)

Operation: Relaxation…and laundry

Itinerary:

  • Breakfast: Eggs, bread and tea. 8:30am
  • Laundry
  • Lunch at the Magnificent Foods
  • Running (or more of walking in my case) and swimming at the KNUST university

After what was a fun, informative, but busy week filled with hospital and clinic visits and walks through communities (and not forgetting the activity-filled day we had before, of course), this Sunday was supposed to be the time to relax…and do laundry.

Team meeting to talk about project.

Our breakfast started a little later than usual. Though breakfast was ready at 8:30 am, most of us had a lazy morning in and came out to eat at 9:00 am. When all the team members were assembled before the usual omelet and tea breakfast, we decided to do an impromptu recap of the week and brainstormed on how we could adapt our initial project to fit the clinics and hospitals we had visited during the week. This session, as spontaneous as it was, became a good way for us to build on our observations from the week not just for the applications of our project, but for identifying certain problems that can become future projects for future APOC teams.

El and Laura doing laundry in the bathtub

Keeping the theme of lazy Sunday in mind, we did not start laundry until late morning, around 10:30 am. This didn’t prove to be a very wise idea, especially since we were supposed to do laundry the old-fashioned way with water, a bar of soap, and our good old hands. Furthermore, there proved to be a shortage of buckets for all of us to do laundry at the same time, which didn’t seem to leave enough time before the bus was supposed to pick us up at 1:00 pm for lunch. Nonetheless, we bonded as we shared our buckets (who knew that manual laundry-washing was such a social activity) and we made it in time for lunch; also nothing a little adrenaline and team work couldn’t fix.

Kyler and Bienfait doing laundry.

After laundry, we had lunch at the same restaurant we visited last Sunday: Magnificent Foods. The food was just as fantastic as we know it is in Ghana (the serving sizes are still too large for any of us to finish), but the most eventful thing was that the tailor came to take our measurements for the traditional clothes we are to wear to the King’s palace next Sunday. Everyone had their designs on their phones, their cloths bought from the market, and a bit of excitement on their faces as we saw our plans on the clothes being born. We anticipate receiving the clothes sometime this week. (Emotion check: beaming with excitement!!)

Once our long lunch meal was over, we decided to do a very un-lazy thing and went running on the KNUST campus before the sun set. This created another team bonding moment and we went swimming afterwards. This was the most memorable part for me because, though I can’t swim, I had my teammates with me and they taught me some basic swimming skills.

The rest of the night was very lazy. We played cards until late and each prepared for the week to come. (Emotion check: tired but excited to start the week.)

APOC in Ghana: May 25th

In this series of posts, University of Pennsylvania students who took the spring 2019 APOC (Appropriate Point of Care Diagnostics) course write about their experience traveling to Ghana in May-June 2019.

by Aime Bienfait Igiraneza (Computer Science, ’20)

We started the morning at the Golden Tulip Hotel. tThere we meet a group of civil engineers from KNUST (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology). Once we were all together we sat down to enjoy some traditional west African breakfast foods like Hausa Koko, a spicy porridge.

After breakfast was finished we left the hotel for the market. At the market the KNUST students were nice enough to show us around while we looked for Kente cloth. The brightly-colored and intricately designed Kente was purchased so that it can be made into clothing for us to wear when we meet the Ashanti king.

Once we were finished at the market we all boarded the bus to spend the rest of the day at the lake. The lake we traveled to, Lake Bosumtwi, the only natural lake in Ghana, sits within an ancient impact crater. A little outside the city Kumasi the lake served as a nice break from the busy city. At the lake we enjoyed more food, games, and a beautiful view to end the day.

APOC in Ghana 2019: May 24th

In this series of posts, University of Pennsylvania students who took the spring 2019 APOC (Appropriate Point of Care Diagnostics) course write about their experience traveling to Ghana in May-June 2019.

Suntreso Hospital

We started off our day with another visit to Suntreso Hospital to observe the treatment and handling of their HIV/AIDS patients. We spoke to the resident pharmacist who showed us the different types of ARV’s the hospital keeps in stock. We also met with an HIV/AIDS treatment counselor who allowed some of us to observe a counseling session with a newly diagnosed patient after receiving their consent.

We found that many patients suffering from communicable diseases often go undiagnosed and untreated for extended periods of time. This is due to the effort it takes to make a hospital visit in addition to the lack or underdevelopment of referral systems for patients found to be exhibiting symptoms of other ailments after screening. We learned that patients also tend to commute large distances from other regions to seek treatment in areas where they are less likely to be recognized by friends, family or co-workers. We learned that this is usually done to avoid the implications of stigma surrounding many diseases, especially HIV/AIDS.

Ghana National Cultural Museum

We then went to the Ghana National Cultural Museum where we were introduced to just a few of the many facets of Ghanaian culture that we had time for. We were told what each of our day names meant and learned about a host of traditional practices and items such as the talking drum, traditional dress, and stories about the fight against colonial rule. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed inside the museum.

After a day inspired by Ghanaian culture we stopped for a meal at Ike’s Café. This restaurant is near the museum and we very quickly found ourselves enjoying a night full of Ghanaian delicacies to match the history we’d learned about as well as some breathtaking live music. We shared a host of local dishes which included fufu, banku, jollof, plantain, rice balls, and more.

Princess & Dr. David Issadore enjoying one of his favorite meals – fufu

The live band gave us a shout-out midway through their performance. A particular saxophonist managed to capture the attention of some of our team members. All-in-all we had an educational and relaxing day.

APOC in Ghana 2019: May 23rd

In this series of posts, University of Pennsylvania students who took the spring 2019 APOC (Appropriate Point of Care Diagnostics) course write about their experience traveling to Ghana in May-June 2019.

by Aime Bienfait Igiraneza (Computer Science, ’20)

The morning was fantastic! Several group members were having a slightly enhanced digestion, which turned out not so great. It did not help that we also saw at least three guys peeing on the street, a serious public health issue that should be looked into. Nonetheless, we were excited for the day and we were not disappointed. We were about to visit one of the regional hospitals. If I were to summarize the day, there were two main takeaways: First, the hospital has an amazing system that works. Second, the potential of the system in place is not fully explored.

We started by meeting the medical director of the hospital along with another doctor specializing in tuberculosis. The main methods used to diagnose TB are microscopy and GeneXpert when the patient can produce sputum. Otherwise, the use of X-rays test is the remaining option. Although patients with TB can be diagnosed within two hours, it is still challenging to catch all cases due to stigma and the fact that testing is only ever done in the morning. Even the detected cases are more likely to be very advanced as people tend to first try other medicines when they encounter symptoms such as coughing, thinking that it will simply go away. However, an interesting program to collect sputum from pharmacies has been initiated which allows professionals to catch those who simply buy cough medicines from drug stores. After being diagnosed, patients are prescribed TB pills and these patients are re-checked after six months, which unfortunately is not always followed up on. When possible, patients are also followed up on at home by special health workers who ensure that pills are taken as prescribed. Even better, injectables are administered once in four months, thus reducing the burden of taking pills every day.

A few technical challenges were mentioned. The first one is that medical records for every patient are still saved in books, which pile up over time making it difficult to manage. A software called Health Administration Management System (HAMS) is used to save patients’ identifications and registration book numbers. When this book is updated, so is the HAMS account corresponding to the particular patient. All this is done in real time. Then, at the end of the day, staff from the Health and Information office use a software called District Health Management System (DHMS) to collect the information about the types of patients seen that day. This information is drawn from HAMS as well as record books. Thus, the challenge is how to automate the uploading of data from HAMS to DHMS in real time without waiting until the end of the day to manually do it. This has not been possible in part because HAMS does not contain all the necessary details.

Overall, it’s impressive how well everything works, given the current structure and workflow. At least, we learned about a few challenges, which by the way, were not always revealed to us. As usual, a ridiculously delicious lunch was provided. We also passed by the mall and bought a few fabrics. When we came back from the hospital, we picked up some KFC chickens for dinner and kept enjoying the incredible Ghanaian hospitality until we called it a day.

APOC in Ghana: May 22nd

In this series of posts, University of Pennsylvania students who took the spring 2019 APOC (Appropriate Point of Care Diagnostics) course write about their experience traveling to Ghana in May-June 2019.

We started the day very early at 7:00 am with a drive to the Suntreso General Hospital where we were to visit Dr. Agyarko-Poku, a venerologist who would help us understand more about mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS to aid in our study of noncommunicable diseases.

We arrived at the hospital, where the in-charge for the STI-OPD unit welcomed us and gave us a general overview of how events are run at the hospital’s HIV clinic which occurs on Wednesdays for adults and on Fridays for children. She gave us also an overview of how viral testing, data collection, and drug dispensary and treatment occur for the confirmed patients in the hospital. We got to see the relevant data points that were collected on each patient visit to help us better understand how well to modify our machine learning system.

We then went to the Disease Control Unit where the professionals there have the job of collating all hospital cases at the end of the week to identify diseases that are on the rise and have the potential to become public health concerns. We also got to understand more about how tuberculosis is diagnosed in the clinics and how treatment occurs for the disease. We found out also that drug-resistant tuberculosis has not been much of a problem for that particular hospital, contrary to what we thought. After this, we split into teams and went to visit the ART center, the counseling center, the dispensary, the data management room, as well as the consulting room where we got to interact more with the health professionals (i.e. nurses and pharmacists) in order to understand the processes that the patients have to go through from entrance into the hospital facility to diagnosis and the reception of their medication.

We left the Suntreso hospital and came back to KNUST where we had lunch before meeting with the civil engineers to discuss writing a report and making possible recommendations for the communities that we visited in order to improve their sanitation and water supply. We arrived at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital’s Nursing Training School at about 2.30pm where we presented our Tuberculosis Triaging system to the students and received their questions which ranged from the usefulness of our algorithm and project to concerns about data contamination and invalidation. From KATH, we made a final run through KFC to grab dinner before making our way back to the guest house to enjoy our meal and conclude the day.