Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, is drawing on a variety of fields — biomaterials engineering, data science, gene therapy and machine learning — to tailor the next generation of drug delivery vehicles with this level of precision.
His work in this field has earned him a $2.4 million NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, which is part of the NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program. The High-Risk, High-Reward Research program supports innovative research proposals that might not prove successful in the conventional peer-review process despite their potential to advance medicine.
There are two types of fat in the human body: brown and white. Brown fat, the “good” fat, is rich in mitochondria, which gives it its brown appearance. Whereas white fat stores calories and acts as an insulator, mitochondria-rich brown fat burns energy to produce heat throughout the body and maintains body temperature. White fat, conversely, uses its stored energy to insulate the body and keep its temperature level. While all fat serves a purpose in the body, an excess of white fat cells causes obesity, a condition affecting one in three adults in the U.S. and the root cause of many potential health problems. Finding ways to convert white fat to brown opens a possibility of treating this problem naturally.
A new study in Scientific Reports proposes a clever way to convert fat types. Professor of Biomedical Engineering Samuel Sia, PhD, of the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science, led a team which developed a method of converting white fat into brown using a tissue-grafting technique. After extracting and converting the fat, it can then be transplanted back into the patient. White fat is hard-wired to convert to brown under certain conditions, such as exposure to cold temperatures, so the trick for Dr. Sia’s team was finding a way to make the conversion last for long periods. The studies conducted with mice suggested that using these methods, newly-converted fat stayed brown for a period of two months.
Dr. Sia’s team will proceed to conduct further tests, especially on the subjects’ metabolism and overall weight after undergoing the procedure, and they hope that eventual clinical trials will result in new methods to treat or even prevent obesity in humans.
Cremins Lab Student Appointed Blavatnik Fellow
The Perelman School of Medicine named Linda Zhou, a student in BE’s Cremins Laboratory, a Blavatnik Fellow for the 2018-2019 academic year. The selection process for this award is highly competitive, and Linda’s selection speaks to the excellent quality of her scholarship and academic performance. The fellows will be honored in a special ceremony at the Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Linda received her B.S. in Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale University and is currently pursuing her M.D./Ph.D. in the Genomics and Computational Biology Program at Penn. “I am honored to be named a Blavatnik Fellow and am extremely excited to continue my graduate studies investigating neurological disorders and the 3D genome,” she said. “This support will be integral to achieving my long term goal of driving scientific discovery that will help treat human disease.”
Linda’s research is overseen by Penn Bioengineering Assistant Professor Jennifer Phillips-Cremins, PhD. “Linda is an outstanding graduate student,” said Dr. Cremins. “It is a true delight to work with her. She is hard working, intelligent, kind, and has extraordinary leadership ability. Her unrelenting search for ground-state truth makes her a shining star.”
The Blavatnik Family Fellowship in Biomedical Research is a new award announced by the Perelman School of Medicine in May of this year. This generous gift from the Blavatnik Family Foundation awards $2 million to six recipients in the Biomedical Graduate Studies Program at Penn for each of the next four years.
Growing Lungs in a Lab
As the demand for lung transplants continues to rise, so does the need for safe and effective transplanted lungs. Bioengineered lungs grown or created in labs are one way of meeting this demand. The problem – as is ever the case with transplants – is the high rate of rejection. The results of success are always better when cells from the patient herself (or autologous cells) are used in the transplanted organ.
Recently Joan Nichols, PhD, Professor of Internal Medicine, and Microbiology and Immunology, at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, successfully bioengineered the first human lung. Her latest study published in Science Translational Medicine describes the next milestone for Dr. Nichols’ lab: successfully transplanting a bioengineered lung into a pig.
These advances are possible due to Dr. Nichols’ work with autologous cells, continuing the trend of “on demand” medicine (i.e. medicine tailor for a specific patient) which we track on this blog. Dr. Nichols’ particular method is to build the structure of a lung (using the harvested organs of dead pigs in this case), de-cellularize the tissue, and then repopulate it with autologous cells from the intended recipient. This way, the host body recognizes the cells as friendly and the likelihood of acceptance increases. While further study is needed before clinical trials can begin, Dr. Nichols and her team see the results as extremely promising and believe that we are on the way to bioengineered human lungs.
Nanoparticles Combat Dental Plaque
Combine a diet high in sugar with poor oral hygiene habits and dental cavities likely result. The sugar triggers the formation of an acidic biofilm (plaque) on the teeth, eroding the surface. Early childhood dental cavities affect one in every four children in the United States and hundreds of millions more globally. It’s a particularly severe problem in underprivileged populations.
The flu virus is notoriously contagious, but there may be a way to stop it before it starts. In order for the influenza virus to successfully transport itself into the cells of a human host, it needs a certain protein called hemagglutinin which mediates its entry. By interfering with this vital ingredient, researchers can effectively kill the virus.
A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discusses a method of disrupting the process by which this protein causes the virus to infect its host cells. This discovery could lead to more effective flu vaccines that target the flu virus at its root, rather than current ones which have to keep up with the ongoing changes and mutations of the virus itself. Indeed, the need for different vaccines to address various “strains” of the flu is moot if a vaccine can stop the virus from infecting people in the first place.
This breakthrough results from grants provided by the NSF, the Welch Foundation, and the NIH to Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine. Lead researchers José Onuchic, PhD, Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Chair of Physics and Professor of Chemistry and BioSciences at Rice University; Jianpeng Ma, PhD, Professor of Bioengineering at Rice University and Lodwick T. Bolin Professor of Biochemistry at Baylor College of Medicine; and Qinghua Wang, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at Baylor College of Medicine. Their team will continue to study the important role proteins play in how the flu virus operates.
People and Places
This week, we congratulate a few new leadership appointments in bioengineering. First, the Georgia Institute of Technology appointed Penn BE alumnus Andréas García, PhD, the new Executive Director of the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience. In addition to his new role, Dr. García is also the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering Regents Professor. He conducts research in biomolecular, cellular, and tissue engineering and collaborates with a number of research centers across Georgia Tech. Dr. García graduated with both his M.S.E. and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Bioengineering.
Secondly, the University of Minnesota Institute for Engineering in Medicine (IEM) named the Distinguished McKnight University Professor John Bischof, PhD, their new director. This follows Dr. Bischof’s recent position as interim director for the IEM. Dr. Bischof earned his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, and is currently a faculty member in both the Mechanical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering Departments at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Bischof holds the Carl and Janet Kuhrmeyer Chair in Mechanical Engineering.
At an earlier, but no less impressive, point in his academic career, Tanishq Abraham became the youngest person to graduate with a degree in biomedical engineering. The fifteen year old recently graduated summa cum laude from the University of California, Davis. As part of his graduating research, Abraham – a first-generation Indian-American – designed a device to measure the heart rates of burn victims. Abraham has already been accepted by U.C. Davis for his Ph.D. and plans to continue on to his M.D.
Finally, the work continues to create affordable and well-fitted prosthetics, especially for remote, rural, and underfunded areas both in the U.S. and abroad. Unfortunately, recent studies published by the Centre for Biomedical Engineering at the India Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT) demonstrate the uphill nature of this battle; stating that India alone contains over half a million upper limb amputees. To address this explosive population, researchers and entrepreneurs are using new bioengineering technologies such as digital manufacturing, 3D scanning and printing, and more. The best innovations are those that save time, resources, and money, without sacrificing quality in the prosthetic or patient comfort. Penn Engineering’s Global Biomedical Service (GBS) program similarly responds to this need, as each year students follow an academically rigorous course with a two-week immersive trip to China, where they learn how to create and fit prosthetic limbs for local children in conjunction with Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Danielle S. Bassett, PhD, Eduardo D. Glandt Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, has been named the 2018 recipient of the Erdős-Rényi Prize in Network Science by the Network Science Society (NetSci). NetSci has recognized Dr. Bassett for “fundamental contributions to our understanding of the network architecture of the human brain, its evolution over learning and development, and its alteration in neurological disease.” Dr. Bassett will receive the award and deliver a lecture on June 14 at the International Conference on Network Science in Paris. She is the seventh scientist and fourth American to receive the prize.
“Receiving the Erdos prize is a clear recognition from her colleagues that Dani is a true pioneer with many significant accomplishments to date and even more ahead of her,” says Bioengineering Chair Dave Meaney. “She is an amazing role model for all of us.”
The Erdős-Rényi Prize is awarded annually to a scientist younger than 40 years old for his/her achievements in the field of network science. It is named for the Hungarian mathematicians Paul Erdős, whose surname provided a measurement for research collaboration by academic mathematicians, and Alfréd Rényi, whose work focused on probability and graph theory. In network science, an Erdős-Rényi model is a model for generating random graphs. Dr. Bassett’s research applies the principles of network science in neuroscience, with the intention of understanding the brain better by modeling the networks and circuits of our most complex organ.
“I am thrilled and honored to receive this prestigious award,” Dr. Bassett says. “Network science is a true passion for me, and it is heartwarming to see my work, and that of my fantastic collaborators and brilliant students, acknowledged in this way.”
The University of Pennsylvania Department of Bioengineering is proud to announce that Yogesh Goyal, a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Professor Arjun Raj, PhD, has received two pretigious awards. First, has received the Jane Coffin Childs (JCC) Memorial Fund Fellowship, which is a premier fellowship for biomedical studies. The JCC fellowship provides three years of funding at approximately $50,000 per year to top scholars having received the PhD in the previous 18 months. In addition, along with recently minted Bioengineering PhD Jina Ko, Yogesh has been named one of the 14 inaugural Schmidt Science Fellows, each of whom receives $100,000 to cover living expenses while working as a postdoctoral fellow under the auspices of the Rhodes Trust.
“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with such a talented scientist in the coming years on quantitative problems related to development and cancer,” Dr. Raj said. “These fellowships are a well-deserved recognition of Yogesh’s scientific vision and dedication.”
Yogesh, a native of Jammu and Kashmir, India, received his undergraduate in chemical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology. He then came to Princeton University and studied for the PhD in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, under the advisement of Stanislav Shvartsman, PhD, and Trudi Schüpbach, PhD. He came to Penn Bioengineering after finishing his doctorate.
“I am very excited to be selected for two prestigious fellowships,” Yoghes says. “I am looking forward to working with Arjun on learning experimental and computational single-cell techniques to understand developmental and invasive systems.”
This year’s winner of the Staff Recognition Award from the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) at the University of Pennsylvania is Sevile Mannickarottu, the Director of Instructional Laboratories in the Department of Bioengineering. A 1999 alumnus of Penn’s undergraduate Electrical and Systems Engineering program, Sevile joined the staff at Penn Bioengineering in 2005 as a laboratory coordinator and has risen through the ranks since then to run the undergraduate instructional lab. He is also President of the SEAS Alumni Association and has earned Master’s degrees from the Schools of Arts and Sciences and Liberal and Professional Studies during his time at Penn.
Awarded since 1989, the SEAS Staff Recognition Award recognizes each year a non-faculty staff member whose presence contributes in an extraordinary way to the aspirations of the SEAS and inspires excellent performance from others. In the words of the committee giving him the award, “Sevile is a highly esteemed administrator and ambassador of SEAS. Since 1996 from student worker, to labs coordinator, and now the Manager of Bioengineering Undergraduate Laboratories, Sevile has shown integrity, commitment, and imagination throughout his SEAS career. His ability to lead in the significant and continuing educational environment are invaluable to the students, faculty, and peers he works with.” He is also tremendously popular among the undergraduate students in the Bioengineering department. We heartily congratulate him!
Jina Ko, a PhD student in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, was among the 14 PhD candidates from the U.S., Canada, and Germany to be named to the inaugural class of Schmidt Science Fellows. The announcement was made on April 23 at the Apella Alexandria Center for Life Science in New York. Jina will receive a $100,000 to cover living expenses while working as a postdoctoral fellow under the auspices of the Rhodes Trust, which also administers the Rhodes Scholarships for student-athletes. The placement is preceded by a five-week orientation at the University of Oxford beginning this July.
An alumna of Rice University in Houston, Jina came to Penn in 2013 and has worked in the lab of Professor David Issadore, working on microfluidics and lab-on-a-chip technologies. “Jina is the ideal person for the Schmidt Fellowship,” Dr. Issadore said, “and I am very pleased that Eric and Wendy Schmidt agreed! Her work in my lab has brought together microfluidics with machine learning to develop diagnostics for diseases that do not have conventional biomarkers. By working with collaborators at Abramson Cancer Center and Presbyterian hospital, Jina demonstrated an ability to accurately diagnose pancreatic cancer at its earliest stages and prognose specific states of traumatic brain injury, both of which were not possible with previous technology. This fellowship will allow Jina to take a much deeper dive into machine learning and its application to next generation medical diagnostics during her post-doc, and I can’t wait to see what she develops.”
Last night, Daniel A. Hammer, PhD, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor of Bioengineering and Professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, was recognized withthe 2018 Provost’s Award For Distinguished PhD Teaching and Mentoring. This University-wide honor has been awarded annually to two Penn faculty members for the last 15 years.
With an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from Princeton and a PhD from Penn, Dr. Hammer joined the faculty at Cornell in Chemical Engineering after a short postdoctoral appointment in 1988. He was awarded tenure there and came to Penn in 1996. He holds a joint appointment in Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering, and he spent almost seven years as department chair, including serving as Principal Investigator of Penn’s Whitaker Foundation Leadership-Development Award, which led to the hiring of 8 faculty members in Bioengineering and provided seed money for the construction of Skirkanich Hall.
Among Dr. Hammer’s previous honors are an NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award in 1982, election as a Fellow of the AIMBE in 1997, and the Penn SEAS Heilmeier Faculty Award for Excellence in Research in 2004. Dr. Hammer has mentored a total of 51 PhD students, many of who have become faculty members themselves, including three recipients of NSF Career Awards.
“I am deeply honored to win the PhD mentoring award, which is a testament to the quality, inventiveness, and drive of my doctoral students. I have very much enjoyed training these young people in Penn’s fertile scientific environment, and it’s been a singular joy to see their careers flourish.”
Every year the Penn Bioengineering Department presents several awards to students. Last week, we featured our NSF scholarship winners and Rothberg Catalyzer first-prize winners. Here, we present more awards given to students for their service, originality, leadership, and scholarship.
The Albert Giandomenico Award, presented to four students who “reflect several traits that include teamwork, leadership, creativity, and knowledge applied to discovery-based learning in the laboratory,” was given to Jessica Rose, Michael Roth, Singh Gurjeet, Nicholas Vigilante. The Herman P. Schwan Award, named for a former faculty member in Bioengineering, was given to Anna Branch. In addition, Nicholas Stiansen received the Bioengineering Student Leadership Award and four students —Shira Rieke, Karol Szymula, Kate Panzer, and Michael Patterson — won the Penn Engineering Exceptional Service Award.
The Wolf-Hallac Award was established in October 2000 to be awarded to the best graduating female senior from Penn Engineering who is seen as a role model, has achieved a high GPA (top 10%) of class and who has demonstrated a commitment to school and or community. This year’s award was given to two stands: Jacqueline Valeri from Bioengineering and Anna Estep from Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. The Ben and Bertha Gomberg Kirsch Award, given by the Undergraduate Affairs Committee for achievement in applied science, went to BE’s Harvey Huang.
Last but certainly not least are our senior design and project award winners. This year’s Biomedical Applied Science Project Award was given to Bioengineering major Emily Bachner. The department’s Senior Design competition was held on April 16 and 18, and three teams were selected to continue to the school-wide competition this Friday. The three teams had the following members:
• Kate Panzer, Jackie Valeri, Nick Stiansen, and Karol Szymula
• Eric Helfgott, Margaret Schroeder, Manjari Ganti, and Kyle O’Neil
• Jessica Rose, Michael Roth, Gurjeet Singh, and Nick Vigilante
It was a big week’s for Penn Bioengineering‘s Jason Burdick, PhD. This week Dr. Burdick, who is Professor of Bioengineering, received the George H. Heilmeier Faculty Award for Excellence in Research and the Clemson Award from the Society for Biomaterials. Receiving the Heilmeier Award on Tuesday, April 10, Dr. Burdick presented a lecture entitled “”Engineering Hydrogels for Applications in Drug Delivery and Tissue Repair.” Two days later at the annual meeting of the Society for Biomaterials in Atlanta, he received the Clemson and lectured as well.
The Heilmeier Award is named for George H. Heilmeier, PhD, an alumnus in electrical engineering from Penn and Princeton and executive at RCA, Texas Instruments, DARPA, and other organizations who died in 2014. Dr. Burdick is the sixth BE faculty member (including secondary faculty) to win the award since its institution in 2002. The Clemson awards are given yearly in three areas: basic research; applied research; and contributions to the literature. Dr. Burdick is the first-ever Clemson recipient from Penn. In addition, his PhD student Leo Wang won the Student Award for Outstanding Research by a PhD candidate.
“I am very honored to receive these two awards,” Dr. Burdick said, “which are really reflections of the great lab members that I have had over my years at Penn, as well as the support of fantastic colleagues and collaborators.”
It’s awards season again, and Penn Bioengineering undergraduates and graduate students are among the honorees. Five students received fellowships from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Three of our current graduate students — Jason Andrechak, Brendan Murphy, and Wisberty Gordián Vélez — were awarded fellowships. In addition, two of our former undergrads — Elaida Dimwamwa and Ingrid Sheu Lan — won fellowships to attend graduate programs, respectively, at Georgia Tech and Stanford.
Among our Master’s students, Natalie A. Giovino was one of four recipients from the School of Engineering and Applies Science receiving Outstanding Academic Awards. BE undergraduate Jacqueline A. Valeri, who will go on to MIT for her PhD next year, received honorable mention. Finally, at the Rothberg Catalyzer at Penn over the last weekend in March, the first prize (runner-up to grand prize) award of $2,000 went to a team of Penn freshmen including Bioengineering major Jonathan Mairena.
“The successes of our remarkable students continue to be recognized in local and national competitions” says David Meaney, S.R. Pollack Professor and chair of Bioengineering, “and is more evidence of the special environment Penn has for bioengineering.”