A new interview in Penn Medicine News examines Penn Health-Tech (PHT) five years after its founding. PHT began as an experimental collaborative effort between the Perelman School of Medicine, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research to provide funding, advising, and resources to empower innovators to develop transformative devices and technologies in the Penn community. Specifically, PHT specializes in connecting innovators from across Penn’s campus and schools to connect and to develop technology and medical devices to answer some of the most pressing needs in healthcare. Katherine (Katie) Reuther, Practice Associate Professor in Bioengineering, was appointed Executive Director of PHT in 2021 and is leading this venture into the next phase of its growth. Reuther, an alumna of Penn Bioengineering, followed up her doctoral studies with a M.B.A. from Columbia University and subsequently stayed at Columbia as Senior Lecturer in Design, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. As such, her experience and expertise in the fields of both biomedical engineering and entrepreneurship position her well to shepherd PHT into its fullest potential:
“What appealed to me most about the position was a strong foundation, deep resources, and the potential and room to do more, including the opportunity to elevate Penn and Philadelphia as a national hub for health-technology innovation.”
With its irregularities and anatomical complexities, the root canal system is one of the most clinically challenging spaces in the oral cavity. As a result, biofilm not fully cleared from the nooks and crannies of the canals remains a leading cause of treatment failure and persistent endodontic infections, and there are limited means to diagnose or assess the efficacy of disinfection. One day, clinicians may have a new tool to overcome these challenges in the form of microrobots.
In a proof-of-concept study, researchers from Penn Dental Medicine and its Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry (CiPD), have shown that microrobots can access the difficult to reach surfaces of the root canal with controlled precision, treating and disrupting biofilms and even retrieving samples for diagnostics, enabling a more personalized treatment plan. The Penn team shared their findings on the use of two different microrobotic platforms for endodontic therapy in the August issue of the Journal of Dental Research;the work was selected for the issue’s cover.
“The technology could enable multimodal functionalities to achieve controlled, precision targeting of biofilms in hard-to-reach spaces, obtain microbiological samples, and perform targeted drug delivery, ” says Dr. Alaa Babeer, lead author of the study and a Penn Dental Medicine Doctor of Science in Dentistry (DScD) and endodontics graduate, who is now within the lab of Dr. Michel Koo, co-director of the CiPD .
In both platforms, the building blocks for the microrobots are iron oxide nanoparticles (NPs) that have both catalytic and magnetic activity and have been FDA approved for other uses. In the first platform, a magnetic field is used to concentrate the NPs in aggregated microswarms and magnetically control them to the apical area of the tooth to disrupt and retrieve biofilms through a catalytic reaction. The second platform uses 3D printing to create miniaturized helix-shaped robots embedded with iron oxide NPs. These helicoids are guided by magnetic fields to move within the root canal, transporting bioactives or drugs that can be released on site.
“This technology offers the potential to advance clinical care on a variety of levels,” says Dr. Koo, co-corresponding author of the study with Dr. Edward Steager, a senior research investigator in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “One important aspect is the ability to have diagnostic as well as therapeutic applications. In the microswarm platform, we can not only remove the biofilm, but also retrieve it, enabling us identify what microorganisms caused the infection. In addition, the ability to conform to the narrow and difficult-to-reach spaces within the root canal allows for a more effective disinfection in comparison to the files and instrumentation techniques presently used.”
Michel Koo is a professor in the Department of Orthodontics and divisions of Community Oral Health and Pediatric Dentistry in Penn Dental Medicine and co-director of the Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry. He is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.
A study published in Nature Biomedical Engineering details a novel method for imaging the placenta in pregnant patients as well as the results of a pilot clinical study. By combining optical measurements with ultrasound, the findings show how oxygen levels can be monitored noninvasively and provides a new way to generate a better understanding of this complex, crucial organ. This research was the result of a collaboration of the groups of the University of Pennsylvania’s Arjun Yodh and Nadav Schwartz with colleagues from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and was led by postdoc Lin Wang.
Schwartz describes the placenta as the “engine” of pregnancy, an organ that plays a crucial role in delivering nutrients and oxygen to the fetus. Placental dysfunction can lead to complications such as fetal growth restriction, preeclampsia, and stillbirth. To increase knowledge about this crucial organ, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development launched the Human Placenta Project in 2014. One focus of the program is to develop tools to assess human placental structure and function in real time, including optical devices.
For three years, the researchers optimized the design of their instrument and tested it in preclinical settings. The process involved integrating optical fibers with ultrasound probes, exploring various ultrasound transducers, and improving the multimodal technology so that measurements were stable, accurate, and reproducible while collecting data at the bedside. The resulting instrumentation now enables researchers to study the anatomy of the placenta while also collecting detailed functional information about placenta blood flow and oxygenation, capabilities that existing commercially devices do not have, the researchers say.
Because the placenta is located far below the body’s surface, one of the key technical challenges addressed by Wang, a postdoc in Yodh’s lab, was reducing background noise in the opto-electronic system. Light is scattered and absorbed when it travels through thick tissues, Yodh says, and the key for success was to reduce background interference so that the small amount of light that penetrates deep into the placenta and then returns is still large enough for a high-quality measurement.
“We’re sending a light signal that goes through the same deep tissues as the ultrasound. The extremely small amount of light that returns to the surface probe is then used to accurately assess tissue properties, which is only possible with very stable lasers, optics, and detectors,” says Yodh. “Lin had to overcome many barriers to improve the signal-to-noise ratio to the point where we trusted our data.”
The authors are Lin Wang, Jeffrey M. Cochran, Kenneth Abramson, Lian He, Venki Kavuri, Samuel Parry, Arjun G. Yodh, and Nadav Schwartz from Penn; Tiffany Ko, Wesley B. Baker, and Rebecca L. Linn from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and David R. Busch, previously a research associate at Penn and now at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School.
Though the technology for brain-computer interfaces (or BCI’s) has existed for decades, recent strides have been made to create BCI devices which are safer, smaller, and more effective. Konrad Kording, Nathan Francis Mossell University Professor in Bioengineering, Neuroscience, and Computer and Information Science, helps to elucidate the potential future of this technology in a recent feature in Wired. In the article, he discusses the “invasive” aspects of previous BCI technology, in contrast to recent innovations, such as a new device by Synchron, which do not require surgery and are consequently much less risky:
“The device, called a Stentrode, has a mesh-like design and is about the length of a AAA battery. It is implanted endovascularly, meaning it’s placed into a blood vessel in the brain, in the region known as the motor cortex, which controls movement. Insertion involves cutting into the jugular vein in the neck, snaking a catheter in, and feeding the device through it all the way up into the brain, where, when the catheter is removed, it opens up like a flower and nestles itself into the blood vessel’s wall. Most neurosurgeons are already up to speed on the basic approach required to put it in, which reduces a high-risk surgery to a procedure that could send the patient home the very same day. ‘And that is the big innovation,” Kording says.
Congratulations to Kevin B. Johnson, David L. Cohen University Professor, on his recent appointed as a Senior Fellow in the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn LDI). Johnson, an expert in health care innovation and health information technology, holds appointments in Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Informatics in the Perelman School of Medicine and Computer and Information Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. He also holds secondary appointments in Bioengineering, Pediatrics, and in the Annenberg School of Communication and is Vice President for Applied Informatics in the University of Pennsylvania Health System.
Penn LDI is Penn’s hub for health care delivery, health policy, and population health, we connect and amplify experts and thought-leaders and train the next generation of researchers. Johnson joins over 500 Fellows from across all of Penn’s schools, the University of Pennsylvania Health System, and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Johnson brings expertise in Health Care Innovation, Health Information Technology, Medication Adherence, and Social Media to his new fellowship and has extensively studied healthcare informatics with the goal of improving patient care.
Fibrosis is the thickening of various tissues caused by the deposition of fibrillar extracellular matrix (ECM) in tissues and organs as part of the body’s wound healing response to various forms of damage. When accompanied by chronic inflammation, fibrosis can go into overdrive and produce excess scar tissue that can no longer be degraded. This process causes many diseases in multiple organs, including lung fibrosis induced by smoking or asbestos, liver fibrosis induced by alcohol abuse, and heart fibrosis often following heart attacks. Fibrosis can also occur in the bone marrow, the spongy tissue inside some bones that houses blood-producing hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) and can lead to scarring and the disruption of normal functions.
Chronic blood cancers known as “myeloproliferative neoplasms” (MPNs) are one example, in which patients can develop fibrotic bone marrow, or myelofibrosis, that disrupts the normal production of blood cells. Monocytes, a type of white blood cell belonging to the group of myeloid cells, are overproduced from HSCs in neoplasms and contribute to the inflammation in the bone marrow environment, or niche. However, how the fibrotic bone marrow niche itself impacts the function of monocytes and inflammation in the bone marrow was unknown.
Now, a collaborative team from Penn, Harvard, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI), and Brigham and Women’s Hospital has created a programmable hydrogel-based in vitro model mimicking healthy and fibrotic human bone marrow. Combining this system with mouse in vivo models of myelofibrosis, the researchers demonstrated that monocytes decide whether to enter a pro-inflammatory state and go on to differentiate into inflammatory dendritic cells based on specific mechanical properties of the bone marrow niche with its densely packed ECM molecules. Importantly, the team found a drug that could tone down these pathological mechanical effects on monocytes, reducing their numbers as well as the numbers of inflammatory myeloid cells in mice with myelofibrosis. The findings are published in Nature Materials.
“We found that stiff and more elastic slow-relaxing artificial ECMs induced immature monocytes to differentiate into monocytes with a pro-inflammatory program strongly resembling that of monocytes in myelofibrosis patients, and the monocytes to differentiate further into inflammatory dendritic cells,” says co-first author Kyle Vining, who recently joined Penn’s School of Dental Medicine and School of Engineering and Applied Science as an assistant professor of preventive and restorative sciences. “More viscous fast-relaxing artificial ECMs suppressed this myelofibrosis-like effect on monocytes. This opened up the possibility of a mechanical checkpoint that could be disrupted in myelofibrotic bone marrow and also may be at play in other fibrotic diseases.”
Vining worked on the study as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard in the lab of David Mooney. “Our study shows that the differentiation state of monocytes, which are key players in the immune system, is highly regulated by mechanical changes in the ECM they encounter,” says Mooney, who co-led the study with DFCI researcher Kai Wucherpfennig. “Specifically, the ECM’s viscoelasticity has been a historically under-appreciated aspect of its mechanical properties that we find correlates strongly between our in vitro and the in vivo models and human disease. It turns out that myelofibrosis is a mechano-related disease that could be treated by interfering with the mechanical signaling in bone marrow cells.”
Penn’s Venture LabStartup Challenge awarded its 2022 prize to a sustainable and cost-effective water-testing startup. The venture, ToxiSense, was awarded at a ceremony on April 29, at Tangen Hall, Penn’s hub for student entrepreneurship and innovation.
Co-founded by four first-year students—Aravind Krishnan, Udit Garg, Andrew Diep-Tran, and Aarush Sahni—ToxiSense aims to improve the endotoxin testing required for drinking water and biopharma products through genetically engineering plants with bioluminescent properties. Biopharmaceutical products and drinking water must be tested for endotoxins, the sickness-causing molecule from bacteria. The current method relies on expensive horseshoe crab blood and is environmentally damaging. ToxiSense genetically engineered the Arabidopsis plant to luminesce based on the endotoxin concentration applied to it, serving as a sustainable, cost-effective solution.
ToxiSense was selected from a field of eight finalist teams—including DeToXyFi, Groov, Impact Local, Miren, Nemu, Ossum Technologies, and Shinkei Systems Corp.—who advanced from 30 ventures during the semi-finals portion of the competition, which consisted of a day of virtual pitching and Q&A in front of alumni entrepreneur and investor panels. For the finals, teams pitched to a panel of alumni judges and in front of a live audience of nearly 200 attendees as they competed for over $150,000 in cash and prizes to launch their startups.
“The Startup Challenge is Venture Lab’s premier yearly event, showcasing Penn’s most promising teams of student entrepreneurs,” says Lori Rosenkopf, vice dean of entrepreneurship and Simon and Midge Palley Professor at the Wharton School. “This year’s finalists included undergraduate and graduate students from across the University, and their products offered solutions for environmental, financial, health, and social challenges. These motivated teams capture the spirit of Penn entrepreneurship—innovative, interdisciplinary, inclusive—and we offer our congratulations and our optimistic wishes for their futures.”