Congratulations to the two Bioengineering students to receive 2022 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) fellowships. The prestigious NSF GRFP program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported fields. The eighteen Penn 2022 honorees were selected from a highly-competitive pool of over 12,000 applications nationwide. Further information about the program can be found on the NSF website.
Shawn Kang, BSE/MSE, Bioengineering (’22)
Shawn conducted research in the BIOLines Lab of Dan Huh, Associate Professor in Bioengineering, where he worked to develop more physiologically relevant models of human health and disease by combining organs-on-a-chip and organoid technology.
The following Bioengineering students also received Honorable Mentions: Michael Steven DiStefano, PhD student Rohan Dipak Patel, PhD student Abraham Joseph Waldman, PhD student
William Danon and Luka Yancopoulos, winners of the 2022 President’s Innovation Prize, will offer a software solution to make the health care supply chain more efficient.
by Brandon Baker
William Danon and Luka Yancopoulos are best friends. They’re also business partners.
The duo, who received this year’s President’s Innovation Prize (PIP) for Grapevine, met during sophomore year, connected through Yancopoulos’ roommate. As time went on, they did everything together: cooked meals, played basketball, and read and discussed fantasy novels.
“We spent a lot of time together,” Danon says.
It was only natural, then, that when the time came to start an actual venture, they’d do it together.
“They’re like brothers, in a very good way,” says mentor David Meaney of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, who describes their working dynamic as “complementary.” “I think that will serve them well. Most of what we do in faculty is collaborative, and I see elements of that in their partnership. I give them credit for stepping out and doing something unusual and keeping at it.”
How Grapevine came to be
Grapevine is a software solution and professional networking platform that connects small-to-medium-size players in the health care supply chain. It’s a sort of two-pronged solution: It helps institutions like hospital systems connect disjointed operations like procurement and inventory management internally, but also serves as a glue between these institutions and purveyors of medical equipment.
“William and Luka are impact-driven entrepreneurs whose collaborative synergies will take them far,” says Penn Interim President Wendell Pritchett. “The software provided by Grapevine is poised to reinvent how the health care industry buys and sells medical supplies and services and, truly, could not come at a timelier moment.”
The company is the evolution of a project they began at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, called Pandemic Relief Supply, which delivered $20 million of health care supplies to frontline workers.
“My mom was a nurse practitioner at New York Presbyterian Hospital, the largest hospital in the United States, and she was coming home with horror stories,” recalls Yancopoulos. “In surgery or the ER, a surgeon had to put on a garbage bag because they didn’t have a gown. And they gave her one mask to use for the rest of the month, and I’m seeing on the news, ‘Don’t wear a mask for more than three days.’”
This is where Yancopoulos and Danon first developed an interest in the health care supply chain. Using a database Penn allows students access to that maps the import of any good in the country, they did keyword matching to identify instreams of different goods and handed off findings to New York Presbyterian procurement staff. When McKesson, the largest provider of health care products and services in the U.S., took notice of what they were doing and reached out, they realized they were onto something. In response to their success, they started a company called Pandemic Relief Supply to distribute reliable medical supplies, including items like medical-grade masks and gloves, to frontline workers in the healthcare space.
As time passed, that project evolved into something larger: Grapevine.
In short, Grapevine’s software creates a professional networking platform to resolve miscommunications between suppliers and buyers, as well as adds a layer of transparency between interactants. Suppliers on the platform display real-time data about their inventory and shipping process, with timestamps; this prohibits companies from cherry-picking data or making false claims and creates a more health-care-supply-specific space for companies to interact than, say, LinkedIn.
“Primarily, the first step is we want people to use it internally, and streamline operations, and then through that centralized operational data, you can push that externally and that’s where [Grapevine] becomes a connector,” explains Danon. “Because when you’re choosing to connect with someone, the reason you can do so way more efficiently or quickly, is that data is actual operational data.”
To accomplish this level of transparency, the beginnings of Grapevine involved lots of legwork. Last year, the duo moved to Los Angeles to take stock of what suppliers existed where, and how reliable they were. They realized that many suppliers existed around Los Angeles because of port access; many medical supplies are imported from Asia. Their time in LA made the problem feel even more tangible, they agree.
“We were able to see people were doing outdated processes—manual processes—because there’s no other option,” Danon says. “So, we said, ‘Let’s get out there and do some work to be digital and technologically innovative.”
N.B.: Yancopolous’s senior design team created “Harvest” for their capstone project in Bioengineering, building on the existing Grapevine software package. Read Harvest’s abstract and view their final presentation on the BE Labs website.
One of the reasons that cancer is notoriously difficult to treat is that it can look very different for each patient. As a result, most targeted therapies only work for a fraction of cancer patients. In many cases, patients will have tumors with no known markers that can be targeted, creating an incredible challenge in identifying effective treatments. A new study seeks to address this problem with the development of a simple methodology to help differentiate tumors from healthy, normal tissues.
This new study, published inScience Advances, was led by Andrew Tsourkas, Professor in Bioengineering and Co-Director of the Center for Targeted Therapeutics and Translational Nanomedicine (CT3N), who had what he describes as a “crazy idea” to use a patient’s antibodies to find and treat their own tumors, taking advantage of the immune system’s innate ability to identify tumors as foreign. This study, spearheaded by Burcin Altun, a former postdoctoral researcher in Tsourkas’s lab, and continued and completed by Fabiana Zappala, a former graduate student in Penn Bioengineering, details their new method for site-specifically labeling “off-the-shelf” and native serum autoantibodies with T cell–redirecting domains.
Researchers have known for some time that cancer patients will generate an antibody response to their own tumors. These anti-tumor antibodies are quite sophisticated in their ability to specifically identify cancer cells; however, they are not sufficiently potent to confer a therapeutic effect. In this study, Tsourkas’s team converted these antibodies into bispecific antibodies, thereby increasing their potency. T cell-redirecting bispecific antibodies are a new form of targeted therapeutic that forms a bridge between tumor cells and T cells which have been found to be as much as a thousand-times more potent than antibodies alone. By combining the specificity of a patient’s own antibodies with the potency of bispecific antibodies, researchers can effectively create a truly personalized therapeutic that is effective against tumors.
In order to test out this new targeted therapeutic approach, the Tsourkas lab had to develop an entirely new technology, allowing them to precisely label antibodies with T cell targeting domains, creating a highly homogeneous product. Previously it has not been possible to convert native antibodies into bispecific antibodies, but Tsourkas’s Targeted Imaging Therapeutics and Nanomedicine or TITAN lab specializes in the creation of novel targeted imaging and therapeutic agents for detection and treatment of various diseases. “Much is yet to be done before this could be considered a practical clinical approach,” says Tsourkas. “But I hope at the very least this works stimulates new ideas in the way we think about personalized medicine.”
In their next phase, Tsourkas’s team will be working to separate anti-tumor antibodies from other antibodies found in patients’ serum (which could potentially redirect the bispecific antibodies to other locations in the body), as well as examining possible adverse reactions or unintended effects and immunogenicity caused by the treatment. However, this study is just the beginning of a promising new targeted therapeutic approach to cancer treatment.
This work was supported by Emerson Collective and the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute (R01 CA241661).
In a course from Annenberg’s David Lydon-Staley, seven graduate students conducted single-participant experiments. This approach, what’s known as an “n of 1,” may better capture the nuances of a diverse population than randomized control trials can.
To prep for an upcoming course he was teaching, Penn researcher David Lydon-Staley decided to conduct an experiment: Might melatonin gummies—supplements touted to improve sleep—help him, as an individual, fall asleep faster?
For two weeks, he took two gummies on intervention nights and none on control nights. The point, however, wasn’t really to find out whether the gummies worked for him (which they didn’t), but rather to see how an experiment with a single participant played out, what’s known as an “n of 1.”
Randomized control experiments typically include hundreds or thousands of participants. Their aim is to show, on average, how the intervention being studied affects people in the treatment group. But often “there’s a failure to include women and members of minoritized racial and ethnic groups in those clinical trials,” says Lydon-Staley, an assistant professor in the Annenberg School for Communication. “The single-case approach says, instead of randomizing a lot of people, we’re going to take one person at a time and measure them intensively.”
In Lydon-Staley’s spring semester class, Diversity and the End of Average, seven graduate students conducted their own n-of-1 experiments—on themselves—testing whether dynamic stretching might improve basketball performance or whether yoga might decrease stress. One wanted to understand the effect of journaling on emotional clarity. They also learned about representation in science, plus which analytical approaches might best capture the nuance of a diverse population and individuals with many intersecting identities.
“It’s not just an ‘n of 1’ trying to do what the big studies are doing. It’s a different perspective,” says Lydon-Staley. “Though it’s just one person, you’re getting a much more thorough characterization of how they’re changing from moment to moment.”
A new feature in Chemistry World explores the history of CAR (chimeric antigen receptor)-T cell therapy, a revolutionary type of therapeutic treatment for certain types of cancer. One of the pioneers of CAR-T cell therapy is Carl June, Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the Perelman School of Medicine and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. His groundbreaking research opened the door for FDA approval of the CAR T therapy called Kymriah, which treats acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), one of the most common childhood cancers.
In an interview with Quanta Magazine, Vijay Balasubramanian discusses his work as a theoretical physicist, noting his study of the foundations of physics and the fundamentals of space and time. He speaks of the importance of interdisciplinary study and about how literature and the humanities can contextualize scientific exploration in the study of physics, computer science, and neuroscience.
Balasubramanian is Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Penn School of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.
Congratulations to recent Penn Bioengineering graduate Jason Andrechak on winning a Graduate Leadership Awards for 2022. Each year a select number of students across the university are recognized for their service and lasting contributions to graduate student life at Penn. Andrechak, one of only ten recipients in 2022, won a Dr. Andy Binns Award for Outstanding Service to Graduate and Professional Student Life. This award is presented to “graduate or professional students, upon their graduation from Penn, who have significantly impacted graduate and professional student life through service involvement in student life initiatives or organizations.” Andrechak won this award for his “service and leadership in advocating for equity and accessibility during the transition to virtual operations and following a period of leadership transition within the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GAPSA). ”
Andrechak completed his Ph.D. in Bioengineering in 2022, where he studied macrophage immunotherapy in solid tumors in the lab of Dennis E. Discher, Robert D. Bent Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Bioengineering, and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. He was named a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow in 2018. He has actively led the Graduate Association of Bioengineers (GABE) as Community Service & Outreach chair from 2017-2019 and as co-President from 2019-2022. He also served as the Director of Equity & Access for the Graduate & Professional Student Assembly (GAPSA) from 2020-2021, in addition to several other service and advisory roles at the department, school, and university levels.
Learn more about the Penn Graduate Leadership Awards and read the full list of recipients on the Grad Center at Penn website.
Each year, Penn Engineering’s seniors present their Senior Design projects, a year-long effort that challenges them to test and develop solutions to real-world problems, to their individual departments. The top three projects from each department go on to compete in the annual Senior Design Competition, sponsored by the Engineering Alumni Society, which involves pitching projects to a panel of judges who evaluate their potential in the market.
This year’s panel included 42 judges, 21 in-person and 21 online, who weighed in on 18 projects. Each winning team received a $2,000 prize, generously sponsored by Penn Engineering alumnus Kerry Wisnosky.
This year, Bioengineering teams won two of the four interdepartmental awards.
Technology & Innovation Award
This award recognized the team whose project represents the highest and best use of technology and innovation to leverage engineering principles.
Winner: Team Modulo Prosthetics Department: Bioengineering Team Members: Alisha Agarwal, Michelle Kwon, Gary Lin, Ian Ong, Zachary Spalding Mentor: Michael Hast Instructors: Sevile Mannickarottu, David Meaney, Michael Siedlik Abstract: Modulo Prosthetic is an adjustable, low-cost, thumb prosthetic with integrated haptic feedback that attaches to the metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joint of partial hand amputees and assists in activities of daily living (ADLs).
This award recognizes the team which most professionally and persuasively presents their group project to incorporate a full analysis of their project’s scope, advantages and challenges, as well as addresses the research’s future potential and prospects for commercialization.
Winner: Team ReiniSpec Department: Bioengineering Team Members: Caitlin Frazee, Caroline Kavanagh, Ifeoluwa Popoola, Alexa Rybicki, Michelle White Mentor: JeongInn Park Instructors: Sevile Mannickarottu, David Meaney, Michael Siedlik Abstract: ReiniSpec is a redesigned speculum to improve the gynecological exam experience, increasing patient comfort with a silicone shell and using motorized arm adjustments to make it easily adjustable for each patient, while also incorporating a camera, lights, and machine learning to aid in better diagnosis by gynecologists.
After a year of hybrid learning, Penn Bioengineering (BE) seniors were excited to return to the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace for Senior Design (BE 495 & 496), a two-semester course in which students work in teams to conceive, design and pitch their capstone projects in bioengineering. This year’s projects include tools for monitoring health, software to improve communication for the healthcare and supply chain industries, and devices to improve patient care for women and underrepresented minorities.
The three winning teams went on to compete in the annual interdepartmental Senior Design Competition sponsored by the Penn Engineering Alumni Society. BE took home two of the four interdepartmental awards: Team Modulo Prosthetics won the “Technology and Innovation Prize,” recognizing the project which best represents the highest and best use of technology and innovation to leverage engineering principles; and Team ReiniSpec won the “Leadership Prize,” which recognizes the team which most professionally and persuasively presents their group project to incorporate a full analysis of their project scope, advantages, and challenges, and addresses the commercialization and future potential of their research.
All BE teams were also required to submit their projects to local and national competitions, and were met with resounding success. “The creativity and accomplishment of this Senior Design class is really unparalleled,” said David Meaney, Solomon R. Pollack Professor in Bioengineering, Senior Associate Dean of Penn Engineering, and instructor for Senior Design. “The number of accolades received by these students, as well as the interest in transforming their ideas into real products for patients, reached a new level that makes us extremely proud.”
Keep reading for a full list of this year’s projects and awards.
Team 1 – MEViD
MEViD (Multichannel Electrochemical Viral Diagnostic) is a modular, low cost device that leverages electrochemistry to rapidly diagnose viral diseases from saliva samples.
Team members: Yuzheng (George) Feng, Daphne Kontogiorgos-Heintz, Carisa Shah, Pranshu Suri, & Rachel Zoneraich
MOD EZ-IO is a low-cost, novel intraosseous drill that uses force and RPM readings to alert the user via an LED when they have breached cortical bone and entered cancellous bone, guiding proper IO placement.
Team members: Gregory Glova, Kaiser Okyan, Patrick Paglia, Rohan Vemu, & Tshepo Yane
CliniCall helps streamline and centralize communication channels, offering a real-time monitoring device that enables on-site/attending physicians to communicate with on-call physicians through a livestream of patients and data.
Team members: Neepa Gupta, Santoshi Kandula, Sue Yun Lee, & Ronil Synghal
Team 5 – PneuSonus
PneuSonus is a low-cost, user-friendly wearable strap that aids in detecting pediatric pneumonia by using frequency analysis of sound waves transmitted through the lungs to identify specific properties related to fluid presence, a valid indicator specific to pneumonia.
Team members: Iman Hossain, Kelly Lopez, Sophia Mark, Simi Serfati, & Nicole Wojnowski
Team 6 – Chrysalis
Chrysalis is a smart swaddle system comprising an electric swaddle and accompanying iOS application that comforts neonatal abstinence syndrome infants via stochastic resonance and maternal heartbeat vibrational patterns to reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms without pharmacological intervention or constant nurse oversight as well as streamlines the Eat, Sleep, Console documentation process for nurses.
Team members: Julia Dunn, Rachel Gu, Julia Lasater, & Carolyn Zhang
Modulo Prosthetic is an adjustable, low-cost, thumb prosthetic with integrated haptic feedback that attaches to the metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joint of partial hand amputees and assists in activities of daily living (ADLs).
Team members: Alisha Agarwal, Michelle Kwon, Gary Lin, Ian Ong, & Zachary Spalding
COR-ASSIST by Cygno Technologies is a low-cost intra-aortic balloon enhancement that directly supports heart function by increasing cardiac output to 2.8L/min, at a much lower cost and bleeding risk than the current Impella cardiac assist device.
Team members: Francesca Cimino, Allen Gan, Shawn Kang, Kristina Khaw, & William Zhang
Pedalytics Footwear is a rechargeable sandal that continuously monitors foot health and prevents diabetic foot ulcer formation by novelly tracking three key metrics indicative of ulceration, temperature, oxygen saturation, and pressure, and sending alerts to patients via the Pedalytics app when metric abnormalities are detected.
Team members: Samantha Brosler, Constantine Constantinidis, Quincy Hendricks, Ananyaa Kumar, & María José Suárez
ReiniSpec is a redesigned speculum to improve the gynecological exam experience, increasing patient comfort with a silicone shell and using motorized arm adjustments to make it easily adjustable for each patient, while also incorporating a camera, lights, and machine learning to aid in better diagnosis by gynecologists.
Team members: Caitlin Frazee, Caroline Kavanagh, Ifeoluwa Popoola, Alexa Rybicki, & Michelle White
The Solomon R. Pollack Award for Excellence in Graduate Bioengineering Research is given annually to the most deserving Bioengineering graduate students who have successfully completed research that is original and recognized as being at the forefront of their field. This year Penn Bioengineering recognizes the outstanding work of two graduate students in Bioengineering: Erin Berlew and Rhea Chitalia.
Erin Berlew is a Ph.D. candidate in the lab of Brian Chow, Associate Professor in Bioengineering. She successfully defended her thesis, titled “Single-component optogenetic tools for cytoskeletal rearrangements,” in December 2021. In her research, she used the BcLOV4 optogenetic platform discovered/developed in the Chow lab to control RhoGTPase signaling. Erin earned a B.S. in Chemistry from Haverford College in 2015 and was an Americorps member with City Year Philadelphia from 2015-2016. “Erin is a world-class bioengineering with an uncommon record of productivity gained through her complementary expertise in molecular, cellular, and computational biology,” says Chow. “She embodies everything wonderful, both academically and culturally, about our graduate program and its distinguished history.” Erin’s hobbies outside the lab include spending time with family, reading mystery novels, enjoying Philadelphia, and crossword puzzles. In the future, she hopes to continue to teach for the BE department (she has already taught ENGR 105 and served as a TA for undergraduate and graduate courses) and to conduct further research at Penn.
Rhea Chitalia is a Ph.D. candidate in Bioengineering and a member of the Computational Biomarker Imaging Group (CBIG), advised by Despina Kontos, Matthew J. Wilson Associate Professor of Research Radiology II in the Perelman School of Medicine. Rhea completed her B.S.E. in Biomedical Engineering at Duke University in 2015. Her doctoral research concerns leveraging machine learning, bioinformatics, and computer vision to develop computational imaging biomarkers for improved precision cancer care. In December 2021 she successfully defended her thesis titled “Computational imaging biomarkers for precision medicine: characterizing intratumor heterogeneity in breast cancer.” “It has been such a privilege to mentor Rhea on her dissertation research,” says Kontos. “Rhea has been a star graduate student. Her work has made fundamental contributions in developing computational methods that will allow us to gain important insight into tumor heterogeneity by utilizing a multi-modality imaging approach.” David Mankoff, Matthew J. Wilson Professor of Research Radiology in the Perelman School of Medicine, served as Rhea’s second thesis advisor. “It was a true pleasure for me to work with Rhea and to Chair her BE Thesis Committee,” Mankoff adds. “Rhea’s Ph.D. thesis and thesis presentation was one of the best I have had the chance to be involved with in my graduate mentoring career.” After graduation, Rhea hopes to further precision medicine initiatives through the use of real world, multi-omic data in translational industry settings. She will be joining Invicro as an Imaging Scientist. In her spare time, Rhea enjoys trying new restaurants, reading, and spending time with friends and family.