In just two years since CiPD was founded, the outcomes of this newly conceived research partnership have proven its value: microrobots that clean teeth for people with limited mobility, a completely new understanding of bacterial physics in tooth decay, enzymes from plant chloroplasts that degrade plaque, promising futures for lipid nanoparticles in oral cancer treatment and new techniques and materials to restore nerves in facial reconstructive surgery.
In addition, CiPD is training the next generation of dentists, scientists and engineers through an NIH/NIDCR-sponsored postdoctoral training program as well as fellowships from industry.
The two urge “the academic community to adopt a coordinated approach uniting dental medicine and engineering to support research, training and entrepreneurship to address unmet needs and spur oral health care innovations.”
On September 14, Wexford Science & Technology, LLC and the University of Pennsylvania announced that the University has signed a lease for new laboratory space that will usher in a wave of novel vaccine, therapeutics, and engineered diagnostics research to West Philadelphia. Research teams from Penn are poised to move into 115,000 square feet of space at One uCity Square, the 13-story, 400,000 square foot purpose-built lab and office building within the vibrant uCity Square Knowledge Community being developed by Wexford. This is the largest lease in the building, encompassing four floors, and bringing the building to over 90% leased. The building currently includes industry tenants Century Therapeutics (NASDAQ: IPSC), Integral Molecular, Exponent (NASDAQ: EXPO), and Charles River Laboratories (NYSE: CRL).
The new University space will house Penn Medicine’s Institute for RNA Innovation and Penn Engineering’s Center for Precision Engineering for Health, underscoring the University’s commitment to a multi-disciplinary and collaborative approach to research that will attract and retain the best talent and engage partners from across the region. Penn’s decision to locate at One uCity Square reinforces uCity Square’s evolution as a central cluster of academic, clinical, commercial, entrepreneurial, and amenity spaces for the area’s innovation ecosystem, and further cements Philadelphia’s position as a top life sciences market.
Jonathan Epstein, MD, Executive Vice Dean and Chief Scientific Officer of Penn Medicine, shared his anticipation for the opportunities that lie ahead: “Penn Medicine is proud to build on its existing clinical presence in uCity Square and establish an innovative and collaborative research presence at the heart of uCity Square’s multidisciplinary innovation ecosystem. This strategic move underscores our commitment to accelerating advancements in biomedical research, industry collaboration, and equipping our talented teams with the resources they need to shape the future of healthcare.”
Locating the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation in the heart of the uCity Square community brings together researchers across disciplines who are already pursuing new vaccines and treatments, and better ways to deliver them. Their shared work will help to power the next phase of vaccine discovery and development.
Likewise, anchoring the work of Penn Engineering’s Center in the One uCity Square space will allow the School’s multi-disciplinary researchers and their collaborators to advance new clinical and diagnostic methods that will focus on intelligent therapeutics, genome design, diagnostics for discovery of human biology, and engineering the human immune shield.
“Penn Engineering has made a substantial commitment to precision engineering for health, an area that is not only important and relevant to engineering, but also critical to the future of humanity,” said Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering. “The space in One uCity Square will add another 30,000 square feet of space for our engineers to develop technologies that will fight future pandemics, cure incurable diseases, and extend healthy life spans around the world.”
Spearheading the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation will be Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, the Roberts Family Professor for Vaccine Research, who along with Katalin Karikó, PhD, adjunct professor of Neurosurgery, discovered foundational mRNA technology that enabled the creation of vital vaccine technology, including the FDA-approved mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
In this new space at One uCity Square, Weissman and his research team and collaborators will further pursue their groundbreaking research efforts with a goal to develop new therapeutics and vaccines and initiate clinical trials for other devastating diseases.
In addition, two established researchers will join the Institute at One uCity Square: Harvey Friedman, MD, a professor of Infectious Diseases, who leads a team researching various vaccines. He will be joined by Vladimir Muzykantov, MD, PhD, Founders Professor in Nanoparticle Research, who focuses on several projects related to targeting the delivery of drugs, including mRNA, to create more effective, targeted pathways to deliver drugs to the vascular system, treating a wide range of diseases that impact the brain, lung, heart, and blood.
Dan Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in the Departments of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Penn Engineering and Director of the Center for Precision Engineering for Health, will oversee the Center’s innovations in diagnostics and delivery, cellular and tissue engineering, and the development of new devices that integrate novel materials with human tissues. The Center will bring together scholars from all departments within Penn Engineering and will help to foster increased collaboration with campus colleagues at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and with industry partners.
Joining the Center researchers in One uCity Square are Noor Momin, Sherry Gao, and Michael Mitchell. Noor Momin, who will join Penn Engineering in early 2024 as an assistant professor in Bioengineering, will leverage her lab’s expertise in cardiovascular immunology, protein engineering and pharmacokinetic modeling to develop next-generation treatments and diagnostics for cardiovascular diseases.
Penn Bioengineering is proud to congratulate Sunghee Estelle Park, Ph.D. on her appointment as Assistant Professor in the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering at Purdue University. Park earned her Ph.D. at Penn Bioengineering, graduating in July 2023. She conducted doctoral research in the BIOLines Lab of Dan Huh, Associate Professor in Bioengineering. Her appointment at Purdue will begin January 2024.
During her Ph.D. research, Park forged a unique path that combined principles in developmental biology, stem cell biology, organoids, and organ-on-a-chip technology to develop innovative in vitro models that can faithfully replicate the pathophysiology of various human diseases. Using a microengineered model of the human retina, she discovered previously unknown roles of the MAPK, IL-17, PI3K-AKT, and TGF-β signaling pathways in the pathogenesis of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), presenting novel therapeutic targets that could be further investigated for the development of AMD treatments. More recently, she tackled a significant challenge in the organoid field, the limited tissue growth and maturity in conventional organoid cultures, by designing microengineered systems that enabled organoids to grow with unprecedented levels of maturity and human-relevance. By integrating these platforms with bioinformatics and computational analyses, she identified novel disease-specific biomarkers of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and intestinal fibrosis, including previously unknown link between the presence of lncRNA and the development of IBD.
“The unique interdisciplinary expertise I gained from these projects has shaped me into a scholar with a strong collaborative ethos, a quality I hold in high esteem as we work towards advancing our knowledge and management of health and disease,” says Park.
Her vision as an independent researcher is to become a leading faculty who makes impactful contributions to our fundamental understanding of the factors influencing the structural and functional changes of human organs in health and disease. To achieve this, she plans to lead a stem cell bioengineering laboratory with a primary focus on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. This will involve developing human organoids-on-a-chip systems and establishing next-generation biomedical devices and therapies tailored for regenerative and personalized medicine.
“I am grateful to all my Ph.D. mentors and lab mates at the BIOLines lab and especially my advisor Dr. Dan Huh, for his exceptional guidance, unwavering support, and invaluable mentorship throughout my Ph.D. journey,” says Park. “Dan’s expertise, dedication, and commitment to excellence have been instrumental in shaping both my research and professional development, while also training me to become an independent scientist and mentor.”
Congratulations to Dr. Park from everyone at Penn Bioengineering!
The award recognizes faculty who are conducting some of the most innovative and impactful studies in the field of biomedical engineering. Recipients will present their research and be officially recognized at the BMES Annual Meeting in October.
Mitchell is being honored for creating an RNA nanoparticle therapy that stops the spread of the deadly bone marrow cancer multiple myeloma and helps to eliminate it altogether. Known for being difficult to treat, the disease kills over 100,000 people every year.
“We urgently need innovative, effective therapies against this cancer,” Mitchell says. “The nanotechnology we developed can potentially serve as a platform to treat multiple myeloma and other bone marrow-based malignancies.”
Mitchell, along with Christian Figuerora-Espada, a doctoral student in Bioengineering, previously published a study in PNAS describing how their RNA nanoparticle therapy stops multiple myeloma from moving through the blood vessels and mutating. In their current paper in Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering, which expands upon this RNA nanoparticle platform, they show that inhibition of both multiple myeloma migration and adhesion to bone marrow blood vessels, combined with an FDA-approved multiple myeloma therapeutic, extends survival in a mouse model of multiple myeloma.
A team of recent Penn Bioengineering graduates have been included in list of prominent young Philadelphia innovators as chosen by The Philadelphia Business Journal and PHL Inno.
Gabriella Daltoso, Sophie Ishiwari, Gabriela Cano, Caroline Amanda Magro, and Tifara Eliana Boyce founded Sonura as their Senior Design Project in Bioengineering. The team, who all graduated in 2023, picked up a competitive President’s Innovation Prize for their beanie that promotes the cognitive and socioemotional development of newborns in the NICU by protecting them from the auditory hazards of their environments while fostering parental connection. Now, they have been included in the list of fourteen Inno Under 25 honorees for 2023.
“To determine this year’s list, the Philadelphia Business Journal and PHL Inno sought nominations from the public and considered candidates put forth by our editorial team. To be considered, nominees must be 25 years of age or younger and work for a company based in Greater Philadelphia and/or reside in the region.
Honorees span a wide range of industries, including consumer goods, biotechnology and environmental solutions. Many are products of the region’s colleges and universities, though some studied farther afield before setting up shop locally.”
CAR T cell therapy pioneer Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies (CCI) at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, has been named a winner of the 2024 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for the development of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell immunotherapy, a revolutionary cancer treatment approach in which each patient’s T cells are modified to target and kill their cancer cells. The invention sparked a new path in cancer care, harnessing the power of patients’ own immune systems, a once-elusive goal that brought fresh options for those who could not be successfully treated with conventional approaches.
Founded in 2012, the Breakthrough Prizes are the world’s largest science awards, with $3 million awarded for each of the five main prize categories. June is the sixth Breakthrough Prize laureate from Penn, which joins Harvard and MIT among the institutions whose researchers have been honored with the most Breakthrough Prizes.
“This award is not only a testament to Dr. June’s outstanding contributions to science, but also a shining example of the caliber of discoveries and research which Penn faculty set their sights upon,” said Penn President Liz Magill. “We are immensely proud to have Dr. June as a member of the Penn academic community, and we know that CAR T cell therapy is just the first chapter in an inspiring and lifesaving new era of medicine.”
June is internationally recognized for his role in pioneering the CAR T cell therapy, which led to the first FDA-approved personalized cellular therapy, for children and young adults with the blood cancer known as acute lymphoblastic leukemia, in August of 2017—a step which has spurred five additional approvals of the technique in other blood cancers. June joined Penn in 1999, building momentum for Penn to become a global hub for cell and gene therapy. Gene-modified T cells engineered in June’s lab to retrain a patient’s own immune cells to attack cancer were used in the first clinical trial of CAR T cell therapy in 2010. Some of the earliest children and adults treated have experienced long-lasting remissions of 10 years or more. In addition to the FDA approvals that have made the therapy commercially available to patients across the world, thousands more have benefited from clinical trials testing these transformative treatments, including for the treatment of solid tumors and even autoimmune diseases like lupus.
“Dr. June’s tireless commitment to advancing T cell immunotherapy research has been life-changing for many patients affected by cancer, who have lived longer, fuller lives, thanks to the discoveries made in his lab,” said J. Larry Jameson,executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and dean of the Perelman School of Medicine. “We are proud to see one of Penn’s most esteemed scientists recognized for the impact of his foundational work to develop a new class of cancer immunotherapy treatment.”
In recent years, cancer researchers have hailed the arrival of chimeric antigen receptor T cell (CAR T) therapy, which has delivered promising results, transforming the fight against various forms of cancer. The process involves modifying patients’ T-cells to target cancer cells, resulting in remarkable success rates for previously intractable forms of cancer.
Six CAR T cell therapies have secured FDA approval, and several more are in the pipeline. However, these therapies come with severe and potentially lethal side effects, namely cytokine release syndrome (CRS) and neurotoxicity. These drawbacks manifest as a range of symptoms—from high fever and vomiting to multiple organ failure and patient death—posing significant challenges to broader clinical application.
“Addressing CRS and neurotoxicity without compromising the therapeutic effectiveness of CAR T cells has been a complex challenge,” says Mitchell.
He says that unwanted interactions between CAR T and immune cells called macrophages drive the overactivation of macrophages, which in turn result in the release of toxic cytokines that lead to CRS and neurotoxicity.
“Controlling CAR T-macrophage interactions in vivo is difficult,” Mitchell says. “So, our study introduces a materials engineering-based strategy that involves incorporating a sugar molecule onto the surface of CAR T cells. These sugars are then used as a reactive handle to create a biomaterial coating around these cells directly in the body, which acts as a ‘suit of armor,’ preventing dangerous interactions with macrophages.”
First author Ningqiang Gong, a postdoctoral researcher in the Mitchell Lab, elaborates on the technique, “We attached this sugar molecule to the CAR T cells using metabolic labeling. This modification enables the CAR T cells to attack cancer cells without any hindrance.”
“When symptoms of CRS begin to manifest, we introduce another molecule—polyethylene glycol (PEG)—to create the suit of armor, which effectively blocks dangerous interactions between these engineered T cells, macrophages, and the tumor cells themselves,” Gong says.
For most of modern medicine, cancer drugs have been developed the same way: by designing molecules to treat diseased cells. With the advent of immunotherapy, that changed. For the first time, scientists engineered patients’ own immune systems to recognize and attack diseased cells.
One of the best examples of this pioneering type of medicine is CAR T cell therapy. Invented in the Perelman School of Medicine by Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy, CAR T cell therapy works by collecting T cells from a patient, modifying those cells in the lab so that they are designed to destroy cancerous cells, and reinfusing them into the patient. June’s research led to the first FDA approval for this type of therapy, in 2017. Six different CAR T cell therapies are now approved to treat various types of blood cancers. Carl June, at the flash mob celebration of the FDA approval of the CAR T cell therapy he developed, in August 2017. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine Magazine)
CAR T cell therapy holds the potential to help millions more patients—if it can be successfully translated to other conditions. June and colleagues, including Daniel Baker, a fourth-year doctoral student in the Cell and Molecular Biology department, discuss this potential in a perspective published in Nature.
In the piece, June and Baker highlight other diseases that CAR T cell therapy could be effective.
“CAR T cell therapy has been remarkably successful for blood cancers like leukemias and lymphomas. There’s a lot of work happening here at Penn and elsewhere to push it to other blood cancers and to earlier stage disease, so patients don’t have to go through chemo first,” June says. “Another big priority is patients with solid tumors because they make up the vast majority of cancer patients. Beyond cancer, we’re seeing early signs that CAR T cell therapy could work in autoimmune diseases, like lupus.”
As for which diseases to pursue as for possible future treatment, June says, “essentially it boils down to two questions: Can we identify a population of cells that are bad? And can we target them specifically? Whether that’s asthma or chronic diseases or lupus, if you can find a bad population of cells and get rid of them, then CAR T cells could be therapeutic in that context.”
“What’s exciting is it’s not just theoretical at this point. There have been clinical reports in other autoimmune diseases, including myasthenia gravis and inflammatory myopathy,” Baker says. “But we are seeing early evidence that CAR T cell therapy will be successful beyond cancer. And it’s really opening the minds of people in the field to think about how else we could use CAR T. For example, there’s some pioneering work at Penn from the Epstein lab for heart failure. The idea is that you could use CAR T cells to get rid of fibrotic tissue after a cardiac injury, and potentially restore the damage following a heart attack.”
Baker adds, “there’s no question that over the last decade, CAR T cell therapy has revolutionized cancer. I’m hoping to play a role in bringing these next generation therapies to patients and make a real impact over the next decade. I think there’s potential for cell therapy to be a new pillar of medicine at large, and not just a new pillar of oncology.”
The COVID-19 vaccine swiftly undercut the worst of the pandemic for hundreds of millions around the world. Available sooner than almost anyone expected, these vaccines were a triumph of resourcefulness and skill.
Messenger RNA vaccines, like the ones manufactured by Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech, owed their speed and success to decades of research reinforcing the safety and effectiveness of their unique immune-instructive technology.
In addition to outlining a more flexible and effective COVID-19 vaccine, this work has potential to increase the scope of mRNA vaccines writ large, contributing to prevention and treatment for a range of different illnesses.
mRNA, or messenger ribonucleic acid, is the body’s natural go-between. mRNA contains the instructions our cells need to produce proteins that play important roles in our bodies’ health, including mounting immune responses.
The COVID-19 vaccines follow suit, sending a single strand of RNA to teach our cells how to recognize and fight the virus.
Fat is a normal and necessary part of the body. Fat cells store and release energy, as well as play significant roles in hormonal regulation and immunity.
In recent decades, a concerning rise in metabolic illnesses – such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and diabetes – has focused scientific attention on the biology and chemistry of fat, resulting in a wealth of information about how fat cells work.
But fat cells and their metabolic activities are only part of the story.
Fat-filled lipid droplets, tiny spheres of fat many times smaller than fat cells, are a growing subject of scientific interest. Found inside many different cell types, these lipid particles have long been little understood. Studies have begun to illuminate these droplets’ participation in metabolic functions and cellular protection, but we still know next to nothing about the physical nature of fat.
“Intuitively, people think of fat as soft,” says Discher. “And on a cellular level it is. But at this small size of droplet— measuring just a few microns rather than the hundreds of microns of a mature fat cell—it stops being soft. Its shape has a much higher curvature, bending other objects very sharply. This changes its physics in the cell. It can deform. It can damage. It can rupture.”