Each year, the Penn Department of Bioengineering chooses undergraduate students to receive fellowships for summer research. These fellowships, which provide a $3,500 stipend for use over 10 weeks, were endowed by the Abraham Noordergraaf Student Summer Bioengineering Research Fund. Dr. Noordergraaf, who died in 2014, was a founding member and first chair of the Penn BE Department. In keeping with Dr. Noordergraaf’s research focus on the cardiovascular system, fellows with a focus on this system are favored but not exclusively awarded.
The fellows for the summer of 2017 were Brianna Karpowicz, Jacqueline Valeri, and Alejandro Villasmil. Brianna is a junior bioengineering major working in the lab of Professor Yale Cohen. In her research, Brianna worked with Dr. Cohen in the Auditory Research Laboratory, examining the modeling of multisensory perceptual decision making and specifically seeking to better understand the mechanisms underlying the relationship between sensory information and perception.
Alejandro Villasmil, who is a senior bioengineering major working in Professor Beth Winkelstein’s lab, used his Noordergraaf’s grant to study chronic pain in neck injury. To better understand this problem, Alejandro helped to model injury to the facet capsular ligament — one of the structures in the neck — by examining how painful and nonpainful stimuli affected the axonal structure. He found using fluorescence technology that uniaxial tension resulted in axonal changes resulting in pain.
Finally, Jacqueline Valeri is a senior bioengineering major doing research in the lab of Professor Jennifer Phillips-Cremins. In Professor Cremins’s lab, Jackie undertook research on stem cells, specifically examining the question of whether light could be used to control and modulate the fate of these cells — a field called optogenetics. She helped to design two light boxes to stimulate the interaction between two proteins as a first step toward ultimately attempting to control pluripotent stem cells using light, specifically determining what cell lines these stem cells ultimately produce.
Megan Sperry, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Bioengineering, is a recipient of a Student Design and Research Award from the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES). Megan works in the Spine Pain Research Lab of Beth Winkelstein, Ph.D., professor of Bioengineering and Vice Provost for Education at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, as well as with Eric Granquist, DMD, MD, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon at Penn Dental Medicine.
With Drs. Winkelstein and Granquist, Megan studies temporomandibular joint (TMJ) pain and osteoarthritis, the latter of which can develop as a long-term consequence of untreated TMJ dysfunction. There’s currently no way to determine which patients will progress to TMJ osteoarthritis, so Megan’s extended abstract, which was submitted to the BMES competition, detailed a study using 18F-EF5 PET, an imaging modality used mainly in oncology. Hypothesizing that hypoxia, or low oxygen, was a key factor in the development of TMJ osteoarthritis, Megan studied the relationship between hypoxia and persistent TMJ pain and found that hypoxia preceded reorganization of the cartilage of the TMJ, part of the process culminating in TMJ osteoarthritis (see image below).
“This project has been both fun and challenging because it brings together concepts and techniques from multiple fields, including orthopedics, neuroscience, and, with the use of 18F-EF5, radiation oncology,” Megan said. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to share my work at the BMES Annual Meeting and receive feedback as we continue to move the project forward.”
Each year, BMES awards up to five graduate students the Student Design and Research Award from dozens of submissions. Congratulations to Megan for this elite recognition of her research!
The chapter of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) at the University of Pennsylvania has won the Student Outreach Achievement Award from the society. This is the second time in three years that BMES at Penn has won the award, for which more than 60 other chapters compete.
The award acknowledges the efforts of Penn BMES to establish relationships with the surrounding community. For instance, Junior Beta Day, held in the spring semester, saw Penn BE students hosting approximately 60 local middle school students for a day on campus, during which they interacted with members of the faculty and engaged in activities centered on bioengineering. In addition, the Penn BMES chapter has participated in local neighborhood revitalization initiatives and acted as mentors.
“I’m very proud of our group’s outreach initiatives within the both the greater Philadelphia and campus communities,” said Sonia Bansal, who is one of the outreach chairs for the chapter. “Our partnerships with iPraxis and SPARK help us break down bioengineering concepts into approachable activities for middle school students. We hope that our programming shows students that they too can go on to be engineers and scientists, and its an incredibly rewarding experience to see students get excited about STEM.”
Founded in 1968, BMES is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit professional association acting as a lead society for 7,000 members and 115 student chapters.
Jason Burdick, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Bioengineering, was among the recent recipients of a grant from Sharing Partnership for Innovative Research in Translation (SPIRiT), a pilot grant program awarded by the Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Dr. Burdick’s research, undertaken with Albert Sinusas, MD, of Yale, concerns the development of a noninvasive treatment to limit the damage to the heart caused by heart attacks, which are suffered annually by almost 750,000 Americans. Using single-photo emission computed tomography (SPECT), the technique identifies the damaged heart muscle on the basis of enzymes activated by damage, followed by the targeted administration of bioengineered hydrogels for the delivery of therapeutics
Dr. Burdick says, “This research has the potential to advance treatments for the many individuals with heart attacks who have few current options. Our approach uses injectable materials and advanced imaging techniques to address the changes in protease levels after heart attacks that can lead to tissue damage.”
In other news, Dr. Burdick was one of 12 researchers named by the NIH’s Center for Engineering Complex Tissues to lead collaborative projects aimed at generating complex tissues for several parts of the body.
As we reported earlier, Dan Huh, Wilf Family Term Chair & Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, has been awarded a $1 million grant from the Cancer Research Institute (CRI), along with its first CRI Technology Impact Award.
Recently, the Penn Engineering Blog featured a story on Dr. Huh’s grant and the research it will support for the next three years. You can read the story at the SEAS blog.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a grant to Brian Chow, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering, to study ultrafast genetically encoded voltage indicators (GEVIs). GEVIs are proteins that can detect changes in the electrical output of cells and report those changes by emitting different color light. His research seeks to create GEVIs that can report these changes much more rapidly – in fact, more than a million times more quickly than the velocity of the changes themselves – and apply these ultrafast GEVIs to the study of the brain.
The NIH-funded research will build on earlier research, employing de novo fluorescent proteins (dFPs) created in Dr. Chow’s lab. These dFPs, which are totally artificial and unrelated to natural proteins, report voltage changes in neurons by changing in brightness. Working with a team of investigators that includes faculty members from the Departments of Biochemistry & Biophysics and Neuroscience, Dr. Chow hopes to develop these ultrafast GEVIs.
“Monitoring thousands of neurons in parallel will shed new light on cognition, learning and memory, mood, and the physiological underpinnings of nervous system disorders,” he says.
Dan Huh, Wilf Family Term Assistant Professor in the Penn Department of Bioengineering, has received the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) Technology Impact Award. Dr. Huh, whose research attempts to model cancer-immune cell interactions in microphysiological systems, will receive $1 million over the next three years for direct costs of his research.
“This award will provide us with an exciting opportunity to explore the potential of our organ-on-a-chip technology for the study of cancer immunotherapy, which is one of the most promising yet poorly understood clinical strategies for cancer treatment,” Dr. Huh said. “I am honored to receive this major award and excited with the prospect of contributing to this rapidly emerging area of medicine using innovative bioengineering technologies.”
Ankle sprains are among the most common injuries suffered. Not only do 23,000 sprains occur annually, but nearly two-thirds of people with sprained ankles don’t finish their rehabilitation programs, and more than one-third will sprain the same ankle again. A senior design project team that addressed this topic was one of this year’s three winners: the SockRocker
Among the problems with the currently available rehab technologies are issues of effectiveness, lack of personalization, and poor accessibility. The team — which consisted of Aras Fanuscu, Andrea Frank, David Hernandez, and Angel Xiao — sought to address these issues, coming up with the SockRocker (right). The device, which cost approximately $350 to produce, combines targeted muscle therapy, individualized physician input, and a universal design. The patient places his/her foot into the SockRocker and is then able to move the ankle 30° in either direction, thus strengthening the injured joint. In a pilot study, the design team found that the SockRocker rated 4.8 out of 5 for comfort. In addition, the device is fully portable and can run on 24-volt battery for one month.
Going forward, the team hopes that the SockRocker can be tested clinically to determine its long-term efficacy. According to Timothy Dillingham, MD, MS, chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in the Perelman School of Medicine, the device has potential to close “an unfortunate gap in our clinical rehabilitation and management” of patients with ankle sprains.
How can physicians and engineers help design athletic equipment and diagnostic tools to better protect teenaged athletes from concussions? A unique group of researchers with neuroscience, bioengineering and clinical expertise are teaming up to translate preclinical research and human studies into better diagnostic tools for the clinic and the sidelines as well as creating the foundation for better headgear and other protective equipment.
The five-year project focuses specifically on developing a suite of quantitative assessment tools to enhance accuracy of sports-related concussion diagnoses, with a focus on objective metrics of activity, balance, neurosensory processing, including eye tracking, and measures of cerebral blood flow. These could also provide prognoses of the time-to-recovery and safe return-to-play for youth athletes. Researchers will examine such factors such as repeated exposures and direction of head motion. In addition, they will also look at sex-specific data to see how prevention and diagnosis strategies need to be tailored for males and females.
The multidisciplinary research team believes this study will result in post-concussion metrics that can provide objective benchmarks for diagnosis, a preliminary understanding of the effect of sub-concussive hits, the magnitude and direction of head motion and sex on symptom time course, as well as markers in the bloodstream that relate to functional outcomes.
Knowing the biomechanical exposure and injury thresholds experienced by different player positions can help sports organizations tailor prevention strategies and companies to create protective equipment design for specific sports and even specific positions.
The study will enroll research participants from The Shipley School, a co-ed independent school in suburban Philadelphias, and from CHOP’s Concussion Care for Kids: Minds Matter program which annually sees more than 2,500 patients with concussion in the Greater Delaware Valley region.
The study is funded by the National Institutes of Health.
Faculty members in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania are among the recipients of a major $9.25 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to study the mechanism underlying concussion and to investigate possible interventions.
David Meaney, PhD, Solomon R. Pollack Professor and Chair of the Bioengineering Department (above left), is one of two principal investigators, with Douglas H. Smith, MD, professor of neurosurgery at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine (above right). In addition, Danielle S. Bassett, PhD, Eduardo D. Glandt Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor (below left), Dongeun (Dan) Huh, PhD, Wilf Family Term Assistant Professor (below center), and David Issadore, PhD, assistant professor (below right), all of BE Department, are co-investigators. The Allen Foundation grant also involves investigators from Columbia University (Barclay Morrison, Ph.D.), Duke University (Cameron Bass, Ph.D.), and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (Akiva Cohen, Ph.D.).
Selected from a large national pool of applicants, the Allen Foundation grant will bring together new technology platforms developed by Drs. Huh and Issadore to study how concussions occur at the microtissue scale and release markers of rewiring during recovery. Network theory models from Dr. Bassett’s group will provide an entirely new view on how concussion recovery occurs at all scales in the brain. The overall impact of the project will be to move away from the widely held perspective that all concussions should be treated identically and towards a view that concussions can follow several recovery pathways, some of which must be monitored closely in the days to weeks following injury.