2023 PIP-Winning Team Sonura: Where Are They Now?

Members of Team Sonura: Tifara Boyce, Gabriela Cano, Gabriella Daltoso, Sophie Ishiwari, & Caroline Magro (credit: Penn BE Labs)

In April 2023, three President’s Prize-winning teams were selected from an application pool of 76 to develop post-graduation projects that make a positive, lasting difference in the world. Each project received $100,000 and a $50,000 living stipend per team member.

The winning projects include Sonura, the winner of the President’s Innovation Prize (PIP), who are working to improve infant development by reducing harsh noise exposure in neonatal intensive care units. To accomplish this, they’ve developed a noise-shielding beanie that can also relay audio messages from parents.

Sonura, a bioengineering quintet, developed a beanie that shields newborns from the harsh noise environments present in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs)—a known threat to infant wellbeing—and also supports cognitive development by relaying audio messages from their parents.

Since graduating from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the team of Tifara Boyce, Gabriela Cano, Gabriella Daltoso, Sophie Ishiwari, and Caroline Magro, has collaborated with more than 50 NICU teams nationwide. They have been helped by the Intensive Care Nursery (ICN) at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), which shares Sonura’s goal of reducing NICU noise. “Infant development is at the center of all activities within the HUP ICN,” note Daltoso and Ishiwari. “Even at the most granular level, like how each trash can has a sign urging you to shut it quietly, commitment to care is evident, a core tenet we strive to embody as we continue to grow.” 

An initial challenge for the team was the inability to access the NICU, crucial for understanding how the beanie integrates with existing workflows. Collaboration with the HUP clinical team was key, as feedback from a range of NICU professionals has helped them refine their prototype.

In the past year, the team has participated in the University of Toronto’s Creative Destruction Lab and the Venture Initiation Program at Penn’s Venture Lab, and received funding from the Pennsylvania Pediatric Device Consortium. “These experiences have greatly expanded our perspective,” Cano says.

With regular communication with mentors from Penn Engineering and physicians from HUP, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and other institutes, Sonura is looking ahead as they approach the milestone of completing the FDA’s regulatory clearance process within the year. They will begin piloting their beanie with the backing of NICU teams, further contributing to neonatal care.

Read the full story and watch a video about Sonura’s progress in Penn Today.

Read more stories featuring Sonura in the BE Blog.

Penn Bioengineering Student Kaitlin Mrksich Named 2024 Goldwater Scholar

by Louisa Shepard

Four University of Pennsylvania undergraduates have received 2024 Goldwater Scholarships, awarded to second- or third-year students planning research careers in mathematics, the natural sciences, or engineering.

Penn’s 2024 Goldwater Scholars are third-years Hayle Kim, Eric Myzelev, and Eric Tao in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Kaitlin Mrksich in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

They are among the 438 students named 2024 Goldwater Scholars from 1,353 undergraduates students nominated by 446 academic institutions in the United States, according to the Barry Goldwater Scholarship & Excellence in Education Foundation. Each scholarship provides as much as $7,500 each year for as many as two years of undergraduate study.

The students applied for the Goldwater Scholarship with assistance from Penn’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships. Penn has had 63 Goldwater Scholars named since Congress established the scholarship in 1986 to honor U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater.

Mrksich, from Hinsdale, Illinois, is majoring in bioengineering. She is interested in developing drug delivery systems that can serve as novel therapeutics for a variety of diseases. Mrksich works in the lab of Michael J. Mitchell where she investigates the ionizable lipid component of lipid nanoparticles for mRNA delivery. At Penn, Mrksich is the president of the Biomedical Engineering Society, where she plans community building and professional development events for bioengineering majors. She is a member of the Kite and Key Society, where she organizes virtual programming to introduce prospective students to Penn. She is a member of Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society, and the Sigma Kappa sorority. She also teaches chemistry to high schoolers as a volunteer in the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project through the Civic House. After graduating, Mrksich plans to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. in bioengineering.

Read the full announcement in Penn Today.

Mrksich was awarded a Student Award for Outstanding Research (Undergraduate) by the Society for Biomaterials earlier this year. Read the story in the BE Blog.

Jenny Jiang Wins CZI Grant to Investigate the Potential Trigger for Neurodegenerative Diseases

Jenny Jiang, Ph.D.

TDP-43 may be one of the most dangerous proteins in the human body, implicated in neurodegenerative conditions like ALS and Alzheimer’s disease. But the protein remains mysterious: how TDP-43 interacts with the immune system, for instance, is still unclear. 

Now, Ning Jenny Jiang, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Associate Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, has been selected for the Collaborative Pairs Pilot Project Awards, sponsored by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), to investigate the relationship between TDP-43 and the immune system. 

Launched in 2018, the Collaborative Pairs Pilot Project Awards support pairs of investigators to explore “innovative, interdisciplinary approaches to address critical challenges in the fields of neurodegenerative disease and fundamental neuroscience.” Professor Jiang will partner with Pietro Fratta, MRC Senior Clinical Fellow and MNDA Lady Edith Wolfson Fellow at the University College London Queen Square Institute of Neurology.

The TDP-43 protein is associated with neurodegenerative diseases affecting the central nervous system, including ALS and Alzehimer’s disease. While the loss of neurons and muscle degeneration cause the progressive symptoms, the diseases themselves may be a previously unidentified trigger for abnormal immune system activity. 

One possible link is the intracellular mislocalization of TDP-43 (known as TDP-43 proteinopathy), when the protein winds up in the wrong location, which the Jiang and Fratta Labs will investigate. Successfully proving this link could result in potentially game-changing new therapies for these neurodegenerative diseases. 

The Jiang Lab at Penn Engineering specializes in systems immunology, using high-throughput sequencing and single-cell and quantitative analysis to understand how the immune system develops and ages, as well as the molecular signatures of immune related diseases. Jiang joined Penn Bioengineering in 2021. 

Since arriving on campus, Jiang has teamed with the recently formed Penn Anti-Cancer Engineering Center (PACE), which seeks to understand the forces that determine how cancer grows and spreads, and Engineers in the Center for Precision Engineering (CPE4H), which focuses on innovations in diagnostics and delivery in the development of customizable biomaterials and implantable devices for individualized care. 

Jiang was elected a member of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) College of Fellows in 2021, and has previously won multiple prestigious awards including the NSF CAREER, a Cancer Research Institute Lloyd J. Old STAR Award, and a CZI Neurodegeneration Challenge Network Ben Barres Early Career Acceleration Award.

Jiang is a leader in high-throughput and high-dimensional analysis of T cells, a type of white blood cell crucial to the functioning of a healthy immune system. A recent study in Nature Immunology described the Jiang Lab’s TetTCR-SeqHD technology, the first approach to provide a multifaceted analysis of antigen-specific T cells in a high-throughput manner.

The CZI Collaborative Pairs Pilot Project Awards will provide $200,000 of funding over 18 months with a chance to advance to the second phase of $3.2 million in funding over a four-year period. 

Read the full list of grantees on the CZI’s Neurodegeneration Challenge Network (NDCN) Projects website here.

Penn Bioengineering Student Kaitlin Mrksich Wins Outstanding Research Award from the Society for Biomaterials

Kaitlin Mrksich, an undergraduate student in Penn Bioengineering, was honored with the Student Award for Outstanding Research (Undergraduate) by the Society for Biomaterials (SFB). This prestigious award recognizes undergraduate students who have shown outstanding achievement in biomaterials research.

Mrksich is a third-year student from Hinsdale, Illinois. She is interested in developing drug delivery systems that can serve as novel therapeutics for a variety of diseases. She works in the lab of Michael Mitchell, Associate Professor in Bioengineering. In the Mitchell Lab, Mrksich investigates the ionizable lipid component of lipid nanoparticles for mRNA delivery.

“In Kaitlin’s independent projects, she has focused on probing the role of lipophilicity and chirality for LNP-mediated mRNA delivery,” Mitchell said in the award announcement. “She has synthesized dozens of unique lipids, formulated these lipids into LNPs, and evaluated their potential for mRNA delivery in vivo and in primary T cells. She has been able to deduce structure-function relationships that help explain the role of lipid hydrophobicity in the delivery of mRNA by LNPs. Her findings have not only been instrumental in helping our lab design better LNPs but will also provide fundamental knowledge that will benefit all labs working on LNP technology.”

In addition to her academic activities, Mrksich is also the President of the Penn Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), where she plans community-building and professional-development events for bioengineering majors, and the visit coordinator for special programs for the Kite and Key Society, where she organizes virtual programming to introduce prospective students to Penn. She also tutors a West Philadelphia high school student in chemistry as part of the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project and is a member of Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society and Sigma Kappa sorority. After graduating, she plans to pursue an M.D.-Ph.D. in Bioengineering. 

Read the full list of 2024 SFB award recipients here.

Riccardo Gottardi Receives BMES Rising Star Award

Riccardo Gottardi, Ph.D.

Riccardo Gottardi, Assistant Professor in Pediatrics and in Bioengineering and leader of the Bioengineering and Biomaterials Laboratory at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), received the Rising Star Award from the Biomedical Engineering Society-Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering (BMES-CMBE). The Rising Star Award recognizes a BMES-CMBE member who is at the early independent career stage and has made an outstanding impact on the field of cellular and molecular bioengineering. Awardees will give an oral presentation on their research at the BMES-CMBE conference in Puerto Rico in January and be recognized at the conference Gala dinner.

Dr. Gottardi’s research focuses on engineering solutions for pediatric health, primarily for airway disorders. He has previously received awards for work to create a biomaterial patch to repair the tympanic membrane and for work to develop cartilage implants to treat severe subglottic stenosis. He received grant support from the National Institutes of Health to further his work in subglottic stenosis.

This story originally appeared in the CHOP Cornerstone Blog.

Sydney Shaffer Wins Christopher J. Marshall Award for Melanoma Research

Sydney Shaffer, M.D., Ph.D.

Sydney Shaffer, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine, was named the 2023 Christopher J. Marshall Award winner by the Society for Melanoma Research (SMR). The award recognizes Shaffer’s contributions to melanoma research on oncogenic signalling and molecular pathogenesis of this disease, as well as her rapid development as a rising star and leader in the field, which have helped to further the SMR’s goal to eradicate melanoma. The award was presented at the SMR annual meeting in Philadelphia in November 2023. 

The Christopher J. Marshall Award was established in 2015 by the SMR in partnership with Melanoma Research Foundation Congress to recognize a student, postdoctoral fellow, or new independent PI who has published a substantial and original contribution to studies of signal transduction and melanoma.

Shaffer joined Penn as an Assistant Professor in 2019. She holds a M.D.-Ph.D. in Medicine and Bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania and conducted postdoctoral research in cancer biology in the lab of Junwei Shi, Associate Professor in Penn Medicine. The Syd Shaffer Lab is an interdisciplinary team which focuses on “understanding how differences between single-cells generate phenotypes such as drug resistance, oncogenesis, differentiation, and invasion [using] a combination of imaging and sequencing technologies to investigate rare single-cell phenomena.” A recent paper in Nature Communications details the team’s method to quantify long-lived fluctuations in gene expression that are predictive of later resistance to targeted therapy for melanoma.

Read the award announcement and the full list of prior winners at the SMR website.

The NEMO Prize Goes to Research Improving Soft-Tissue Transplant Surgeries

by Melissa Pappas

Daeyeon Lee (left), Oren Friedman (center) and Sergei Vinogradov (right)

Each year, the Nemirovsky Engineering and Medicine Opportunity (NEMO) Prize, funded by Penn Health-Tech, awards $80,000 to a collaborative team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Engineering and Applied Science for early-stage, interdisciplinary ideas.

This year, the NEMO Prize has been awarded to Penn Engineering’s Daeyeon Lee, Russel Pearce and Elizabeth Crimian Heuer Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Oren Friedman, Associate Professor of Clinical Otorhinolaryngology in the Perelman School of Medicine, and Sergei Vinogradov, Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics in the Perelman School of Medicine and the Department of Chemistry in the School of Arts & Sciences. Together, they are developing a new therapy that improves the survival and success of soft-tissue grafts used in reconstructive surgery.

More than one million people receive soft-tissue reconstructive surgery for reasons such as tissue trauma, cancer or birth defects. Autologous tissue transplants are those where cells and tissue such as fat, skin or cartilage are moved from one part of a patient’s body to another. As the tissue comes from the patient, there is little risk of transplant rejection. However, nearly one in four autologous transplants fail due to tissue hypoxia, or lack of oxygen. When transplants fail the only corrective option is more surgery. Many techniques have been proposed and even carried out to help oxygenate soft tissue before it is transplanted to avoid failures, but current solutions are time consuming and expensive. Some even have negative side effects. A new therapy to help oxygenate tissue quickly, safely and cost-effectively would not only increase successful outcomes of reconstructive surgery, but could be widely applied to other medical challenges. 

The therapy proposed by this year’s NEMO Prize recipients is a conglomerate or polymer of microparticles that can encapsulate oxygen and disperse it in sustainable and controlled doses to specific locations over periods of time up to 72 hours. This gradual release of oxygen into the tissue from the time it is transplanted to the time it functionally reconnects to the body’s vascular system is essential to keeping the tissue alive. 

“The microparticle design consists of an oxygenated core encapsulated in a polymer shell that enables the sustained release of oxygen from the particle,” says Lee. “The polymer composition and thickness can be controlled to optimize the release rate, making it adaptable to the needs of the hypoxic tissue.” 

These life-saving particles are designed to be integrated into the tissue before transplantation. However, because they exist on the microscale, they can also be applied as a topical cream or injected into tissue after transplantation. 

“Because the microparticles are applied directly into tissues topically or by interstitial injection (rather than being administered intravenously), they surpass the need for vascular channels to reach the hypoxic tissue,” says Friedman. “Their micron-scale size combined with their interstitial administration, minimizes the probability of diffusion away from the injury site or uptake into the circulatory system. The polymers we plan to use are FDA approved for sustained-release drug delivery, biocompatible and biodegrade within weeks in the body, presenting minimal risk of side effects.”

The research team is currently testing their technology in fat cells. Fat is an ideal first application because it is minimally invasive as an injectable filler, making it versatile in remodeling scars and healing injury sites. It is also the soft tissue type most prone to hypoxia during transplant surgeries, increasing the urgency for oxygenation therapy in this particular tissue type.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Daeyeon Lee and Sergei Vinogradov are members of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Arjun Raj Receives 2023-24 Heilmeier Award

by Olivia J. McMahon

Arjun Raj, Ph.D.

Arjun Raj, Professor in Bioengineering in Penn Engineering, has been named the recipient of the 2023-24 George H. Heilmeier Faculty Award for Excellence in Research for “pioneering the development and application of single-cell, cancer-fighting technologies.”

The Heilmeier Award honors a Penn Engineering faculty member whose work is scientifically meritorious and has high technological impact and visibility. It is named for the late George H. Heilmeier, a Penn Engineering alumnus and member of the School’s Board of Advisors, whose technological contributions include the development of liquid crystal displays and whose honors include the National Medal of Science and Kyoto Prize.

Raj, who also holds an appointment in Genetics in the Perelman School of Medicine, is a pioneer in the burgeoning field of single-cell engineering and biology. Powered by innovative techniques he has developed for molecular profiling of single cells, his scientific discoveries range from the molecular underpinnings of cellular variability to the behavior of single cells across biology, including in diseases such as cancer.

Raj will deliver the 2023-24 Heilmeier Lecture at Penn Engineering during the spring 2024 semester.

This story originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

Read more stories featuring Dr. Raj here.

César de la Fuente Named ELHM Scholar by National Academy of Medicine

César de la Fuente, Ph.D.

César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, Psychiatry, Microbiology, and in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has been selected as a 2023 Emerging Leaders in Health and Medicine (ELHM) Scholar by the National Academy of Medicine (NAM). With joint appointments in both Penn Engineering and the Perelman School of Medicine, de la Fuente works to combine human and machine intelligence to accelerate scientific discovery and develop useful tools and life-saving medicines.

NAM, founded in 1970, is an independent organization of professionals that advises the entire scientific community on critical health care issues. Each year, NAM chooses up to 10 new ELHM Scholars who are early-to-mid-career professionals from a wide range of health-related fields, including biomedical engineering, internal medicine, psychiatry, radiology and journalism to serve a three-year term.

“We are delighted that Dr. de la Fuente is receiving recognition from the National Academy of Medicine for his breakthrough contributions and exceptional leadership in the life sciences,” says Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering. “His pioneering work using computers to accelerate antibiotic discovery is extraordinary. We proudly celebrate his selection as part of this outstanding group of scholars.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Penn Bioengineers Awarded 2023 “Accelerating from Lab to Market Pre-Seed” Grants

Congratulations to the members of the Penn Bioengineering community who were awarded 2023 Accelerating from Lab to Market Pre-Seed Grants from the University of Pennsylvania Office of the Vice Provost for Research (OVPR).

Andrew Tsourkas, Ph.D.

Three faculty affiliated with Bioengineering were included among the four winners. Andrew Tsourkas, Professor in Bioengineering and Co-Director of the Center for Targeted Therapeutics and Translational Nanomedicine (CT3N), was awarded for his project titled “Precise labeling of protein scaffolds with fluorescent dyes for use in biomedical applications.” Tsourkas’s team created protein scaffold that can better control the location and orientation of fluorescent dyes, commonly used for a variety of biomedical applications, such as labeling antibodies or fluorescence-guided surgery. The Tsourkas Lab specializes in “creating novel targeted imaging and therapeutic agents for the detection and/or treatment of diverse diseases.”

Also awarded were Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group members Mark Anthony Sellmeyer, Assistant Professor in Radiology in the Perelman School of Medicine, and Rahul M. Kohli, Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Perelman School of Medicine.

From the OVPR website:

“Penn makes significant commitments to academic research as one of its core missions, including investment in faculty research programs. In some disciplines, the path by which discovery makes an impact on society is through commercialization. Pre-seed grants are often the limiting step for new ideas to cross the ‘valley of death’ between federal research funding and commercial success. Accelerating from Lab to Market Pre-Seed Grant program aims to help to bridge this gap.”

Read the full list of winning projects and abstracts at the OVPR website.