The CiPD Partners with the Mack Institute for Innovation and Management to Develop Tooth-Brushing Robots

by Melissa Pappas

Left to right: Hong-Huy Tran, Chrissie Jaruchotiratanasakul, Manali Mahajan (Photo Courtesy of CiPD)

The Center for Innovation and Precision Dentistry (CiPD), a collaboration between Penn Engineering and Penn Dental Medicine, has partnered with Wharton’s Mack Institute for Innovation Management on a research project which brings robotics to healthcare. More specifically, this project will explore potential uses of nanorobot technology for oral health care. The interdisciplinary partnership brings together three students from different Penn programs to study the commercialization of a new technology that detects and removes harmful dental plaque.

“Our main goal is to bring together dental medicine and engineering for out-of-the-box solutions to address unresolved problems we face in oral health care,” says Hyun (Michel) Koo, Co-Founding Director of CiPD and Professor of Orthodontics. “We are focused on affordable solutions and truly disruptive technologies, which at the same time are feasible and translatable.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Michel Koo is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. Read more stories featuring Koo in the BE Blog.

To learn more about this interdisciplinary research, please visit CiPD.

This press release has been adapted from the original published by the Mack Institute for Innovation Management.

Arjun Raj Explores Whether Cells Can Learn in 2024 Heilmeier Lecture

Arjun Raj (center) accepts the Heilmeier Award, with Bioengineering Department Chair Ravi Radhakrishnan (left) and Dean Vijay Kumar (right).

Arjun Raj, Professor in Bioengineering at Penn Engineering and in Genetics at the Perelman School of Medicine, has been honored with the 2023-24 George H. Heilmeier Faculty Award for Excellence for “pioneering the development and application of single-cell, cancer-fighting technologies.”

The George H. Heilmeier Faculty Award for Excellence in Research was “established by Penn Engineering for the purpose of recognizing excellence in scholarly activities of the faculty. Named in honor of George H. Heilmeier, it recognizes his extraordinary research career, his leadership in technical innovation and public service, and his loyal and steadfast support of Penn Engineering.”

Dr. Raj delivered his lecture, entitled “Can a Cell Learn?” on April 8, 2024. In this talk, Raj explores whether it is possible for cells to adapt to their environment by learning, thereby overcoming their genetic destiny.

Learn more about, this award, Dr. Raj and his research here. View the lecture recording below.

The Raj Lab for Systems Biology is interested in building a quantitative understanding of cellular function. They develop new tools for quantifying biological processes based on imaging and sequencing and then use those techniques to help us answer questions in molecular and cellular biology. Read more stories featuring Raj in the BE Blog.

Episode 4 of Innovation & Impact: Exploring AI in Engineering

by Melissa Pappas

Susan Davidson, Cesar de la Fuente, Surbhi Goel and Chris Callison-Burch speak on AI in Engineering in episode 4 of the Innovation & Impact podcast.

With AI technologies finding their way into every industry, important questions must be considered by the research community: How can deep learning help identify new drugs? How can large language models disseminate information? Where and how are researchers using AI in their own work? And, how are humans anticipating and defending against potential harmful consequences of this powerful technology?

In this episode of Innovation & Impact, host Susan Davidson, Weiss Professor in Computer and Information Science (CIS), speaks with three Penn Engineering experts about leveraging AI to advance scientific discovery and methods to protect its users. Panelists include:

Chris Callison-Burch, Associate Professor in CIS, who researches the applications of large language models and AI tools in current and future real-world problems with a keen eye towards safety and ethical use of AI;  

Surbhi Goel, Magerman Term Assistant Professor in CIS, who works at the intersection of theoretical computer science and machine learning. Her focus on developing theoretical foundations for modern machine learning paradigms expands the possibilities of deep learning; and

Cesar de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, Psychiatry and Microbiology with a secondary appointment in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, who leads research on technology in the medical field, using computers to find antibiotics in extinct organisms and identify pre-clinical candidates to advance drug discovery. 

Each episode of Penn Engineering’s Innovation & Impact podcast shares insight from leading experts at Penn and Penn Engineering on science, technology and medicine. 

Subscribe to the Innovation & Impact podcast on Apple MusicSpotify or your favorite listening platforms or find all the episodes on our Penn Engineering YouTube channel.

This story originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

Honoring a Life Scientist’s Lifesaving Science

by Nathi Magubane

Carl June (center) is awarded the 2024 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. His innovative contributions to CAR T cell therapy have transformed the approach to treating certain cancers. His co-recipient is Michel Sadelain of Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital (right). Flanking them on the stage are (from left to right) Olivia Wilde, Camille Leahy, and Regina King. (Image: Courtesy of Breakthrough Prize)

In his acceptance speech for the 2024 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, Carl June, a pioneer in cancer treatment, highlighted the people most affected by his groundbreaking work developing CAR T cell immunotherapy: the patients. 

When all other cancer treatments failed them, said June, “instead of giving up, they pushed forward and volunteered for an unproven experimental new treatment. It’s because of these brave volunteers like our first patients Doug Olson, Bob Levis, and Emily Whitehead, that we have now treated over 34,000 cancer patients.” 

June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies (CCI) at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, was honored at the 10th Breakthrough Prize awards ceremony for the development of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell immunotherapy. This is a cancer treatment approach in which each patient’s T cells are modified to target and kill their cancer cells.

Held on Saturday, April 13, and nicknamed the “Oscars of Science,” world-renowned researchers exchanged lab coats for tuxedos at the star-studded Breakthrough Prize awards ceremony hosted by Emmy Award-winning actor and comedian James Corden. Actors Olivia Wilde and Regina King handed June and his co-winner, Michel Sadelain of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the awards.

“We’re so grateful to have some recognition for a lot of years of work on cancer research,” said June at the event. “I think the best thing is that people learn about this, that this came out of research right here in the country. Now there’s been 34,000 people treated and it just started 10 years ago so people need to understand the value of research to make these new breakthrough therapies.” 

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Carl June is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. Read more stories featuring June in the BE Blog.

Study Reveals Inequities in Access to Transformative CAR T Cell Therapy

Image: iStock/PeopleImages

Patients being treated for B-cell non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL) who are part of minority populations may not have equal access to cutting-edge CAR T cell therapies, according to a new analysis led by researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine and published in NEJM Evidence.

CAR T cell therapy is a personalized form of cancer therapy that was pioneered at Penn Medicine and has brought hope to thousands of patients who had otherwise run out of treatment options. Six different CAR T cell therapies have been approved since 2017 for a variety of blood cancers, including B-cell NHL that has relapsed or stopped responding to treatment. Image: iStock/PeopleImages

“CAR T cell therapy represents a major leap forward for blood cancer treatment, with many patients living longer than ever before, but its true promise can only be realized if every patient in need has access to these therapies,” says lead author Guido Ghilardi, a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of senior author Marco Ruella, an assistant professor of hematology-oncology and scientific director of the Lymphoma Program. “From the scientific perspective, we’re constantly working in the laboratory to make CAR T cell therapy work better, but we also want to make sure that when a groundbreaking treatment like this becomes available, it reaches all patients who might be able to benefit.”

Read the full story in Penn Medicine News.

Marco Ruella is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. Read more stories featuring Ruella in the BE Blog.

A Return to Jamaica Brings Seven Student-Invented Devices to Help People and Wildlife

by Melissa Pappas

Students test the GaitMate harness and structure as a tool to help recovering patients walk.

Penn students have been building their knowledge and hands-on experience in places all over the world through Penn Global Seminars. Last May, “Robotics and Rehabilitation” brought Penn students back to the tropical island of Jamaica to collaborate with local university students and make an impact on recovery and quality of life for patients in Kingston and beyond. 

Course leaders Camillo Jose (CJ) Taylor, Raymond S. Markowitz President’s Distinguished Professor in Computer and Information Science (CIS), and Michelle J. Johnson, Associate Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Perelman School of Medicine and Associate Professor in Bioengineering (BE) and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM) at Penn Engineering, brought the first cohort of students to the island in 2019

“CJ and I are both Jamaicans by birth,” says Johnson. “We were both excited to introduce the next generation of engineers to robotics, rehabilitation and the process of culturally sensitive design in a location that we are personally connected to.” 

As they built relationships with colleagues at the University of West Indies, Mona (UWI, Mona) and the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTECH), both Johnson and Taylor worked to tie the goals of the course to the location.

“In the initial iteration of the course, our goal was to focus on the applications of robotics to rehabilitation in a developing country where it is necessary to create solutions that are cost effective and will work in under-resourced settings,” says Taylor. 

Taylor and Johnson wanted to make the course a regular offering, however, due to COVID-related travel restrictions, it wasn’t until last spring that they were able to bring it back. But when they did, they made up for lost time and expanded the scope of the course to include solving health problems for both people and the environment.

“While we started with a focus on people, we realized that the health and quality of life of a community is also impacted by the health of the environment,” says Taylor. “Jamaica has rich terrestrial and marine ecosystems, but those resources need to be monitored and regulated. We ventured into developing robotics tools to make environmental monitoring more effective and cost-friendly.”

One of those student-invented tools was a climate survey drone called “BioScout.” 

“Our aim was to create a drone to monitor the ecosystem and wildlife in Jamaica,” says Rohan Mehta, junior in Systems Science and Engineering. “We wanted to help researchers and rangers who need to monitor wildlife and inspect forest sectors without entering and disturbing territories, but there were no available drones that met all of the following criteria necessary for the specific environment: affordable, modular, water-resistant and easy to repair. So we made our own.”

Another team of students created a smart buoy to reduce overfishing. The buoy was equipped with an alarm that goes off when fishermen get too close to a no-fishing zone.

Five other student teams dove into projects aligned to the original goals of the course. Their devices addressed patients’ decreased mobility due to diabetes, strokes and car accidents. These projects were sponsored by the Sir John Golding Rehabilitation Center.

One of which, the GaitMate, was engineered to help stroke patients who had lost partial muscle control regain their ability to walk.  

“We developed a device that supports a patient’s weight and provides sensory feedback to help correct their form and gait as they walk on a treadmill, ultimately enhancing the recovery process and providing some autonomy to the patient,” says Taehwan Kim, senior in BE. “The device is also relatively cheap and simple, making it an option for a wide variety of physical therapy needs in Jamaica and other countries.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Scientists Discover a Key Quality-Control Mechanism in DNA Replication

by Meagan Raeke

Illustration of the 55LCC complex. (Image: Courtesy of Cameron Baines/Phospho Biomedical Animation)

When cells in the human body divide, they must first make accurate copies of their DNA. The DNA replication exercise is one of the most important processes in all living organisms and is fraught with risks of mutation, which can lead to cell death or cancer. Now, findings from biologists from the Perelman School of Medicine and from the University of Leeds have identified a multiprotein “machine” in cells that helps govern the pausing or stopping of DNA replication to ensure its smooth progress. Illustration of the 55LCC complex. (Image: Courtesy of Cameron Baines/Phospho Biomedical Animation)

The discovery, published in Cell, advances the understanding of DNA replication, helps explain a puzzling set of genetic diseases, and could inform the development of future treatments for neurologic and developmental disorders.

“We’ve found what appears to be a critical quality-control mechanism in cells,” says senior co-corresponding author Roger Greenberg, the J. Samuel Staub, M.D. Professor in the department of Cancer Biology, director of the Penn Center for Genome Integrity, and director of basic science at the Basser Center for BRCA at Penn Medicine. “Trillions of cells in our body divide every single day, and this requires accurate replication of our genomes. Our work describes a new mechanism that regulates protein stability in replicating DNA. We now know a bit more about an important step in this complex biological process.”

Read the full story at Penn Medicine News.

Greenberg is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Kyle Vining Earns Hartwell Foundation Award to Study Childhood Leukemia

Kyle Vining, D.D.S., Ph.D.

Kyle Vining, Assistant Professor in Preventive and Restorative Sciences in Penn Dental Medicine and in Materials Science and Engineering in Penn Engineering, has received an Individual Biomedical Research Award from The Hartwell Foundation to explore a novel approach to improving treatment for childhood leukemia. Vining is among ten researchers representing eight institutions selected as a 2023 Hartwell Foundation awardee. Vining is also a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

“The proposed studies lay the foundation to make a major scientific impact in the childhood leukemia field and ultimately improve outcomes for children,” says Vining.

Read the full story at Penn Dental Medicine.

Read more stories featuring Vining in the BE Blog.

Illuminating the Unseen: Former Penn iGEM Team Publishes Award-Winning Optogenetic Device

Diagram of the optoPlateReader, a high-throughput, feedback-enabled optogenetics and spectroscopy device initially developed by Penn 2021 iGEM team.

For bioengineers today, light does more than illuminate microscopes. Stimulating cells with light waves, a field known as optogenetics, has opened new doors to understanding the molecular activity within cells, with potential applications in drug discovery and more.

Thanks to recent advances in optogenetic technology, much of which is cheap and open-source, more researchers than ever before can construct arrays capable of running multiple experiments at once, using different wavelengths of light. Computing languages like Python allow researchers to manipulate light sources and precisely control what happens in the many “wells” containing cells in a typical optogenetic experiment.

However, researchers have struggled to simultaneously gather data on all these experiments in real time. Collecting data manually comes with multiple disadvantages: transferring cells to a microscope may expose them to other, non-experimental sources of light. The time it takes to collect the data also makes it difficult to adjust metabolic conditions quickly and precisely in sample cells.

Now, a team of Penn Engineers has published a paper in Communications Biology, an open access journal in the Nature portfolio, outlining the first low-cost solution to this problem. The paper describes the development of optoPlateReader (or oPR), an open-source device that addresses the need for instrumentation to monitor optogenetic experiments in real time. The oPR could make possible features such as automated reading, writing and feedback in microwell plates for optogenetic experiments.

Left to right: Will Benman, Gloria Lee, Saachi Datta, Juliette Hooper, Grace Qian, David Gonzalez-Martinez, and Lukasz Bugaj (with Max).

The paper follows up on the award-winning work of six University of Pennsylvania alumni — Saachi Datta, M.D. Candidate at Stanford School of Medicine; Juliette Hooper, Programmer Analyst in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine; Gabrielle Leavitt, M.D. Candidate at Temple University; Gloria Lee, graduate student at Oxford University; Grace Qian, Drug Excipient and Residual Analysis Research Co-op at GSK; and Lana Salloum, M.D. Candidate at Albert Einstein College of Medicine — who claimed multiple prizes at the 2021 International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM) as Penn undergraduates.

The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (or iGEM) is the largest synthetic biology community and the premiere synthetic biology competition for both university and high school students from around the world. Hundreds of interdisciplinary teams of students compete annually, combining molecular biology techniques and engineering concepts to create novel biological systems and compete for prizes and awards through oral presentations and poster sessions.

The optoPlateReader was initially developed by Penn’s 2021 iGEM team, combining a light-stimulation device with a plate reader. At the iGEM competition, the invention took home Best Foundational Advance (best in track), Best Hardware (best from all undergraduate teams), and Best Presentation (best from all undergraduate teams), as well as a Gold Medal Distinction and inclusion in the Top 10 Overall and Top 10 Websites lists. (Read more about the 2021 iGEM team on the BE Blog.)

The original iGEM project focused on the design, construction, and testing of the hardware and software that make up the oPR, the focus of the new paper. After iGEM concluded, the team showed that the oPR could be used with real biological samples, such as cultures of bacteria. This work demonstrated that the oPR could be applied to real research questions, a necessary precursor to publication, and that the device could simultaneously monitor and manipulate living samples. 

The main application for the oPR is in metabolic production (such as the creation of pharmaceuticals and bio-fuels). The oPR is able to issue commands to cells via light but can also take live readings about their current state. In the oPR, certain colors of light cause cells to carry out different tasks, and optical measurements give information on growth rates and protein production rates.

In this way, the new device is able to support production processes that can adapt in real time to what cells need, altering their behavior to maximize yield. For example, if an experiment produces a product that is toxic to cells, the oPR could instruct those cells to “turn on” only when the population of cells is dense and “turn off” when the concentration of that product becomes toxic and the cellular population needs to recover. This ability to pivot in real time could assist industries that rely on bioproduction.

The main challenges in developing this device were in incorporating the many light emitting diodes (LEDs) and sensors into a tiny space, as well as insulating the sensors from the nearby LEDs to ensure that the measured light came from the sample and not from the instrument itself. The team also had to create software that could coordinate the function of nearly 100 different sets of LEDs and sensors. Going forward, the team hopes to spread the word about the open-source oPR to other researchers studying metabolic production to enable more efficient research.

Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering and senior author of the paper, served as the team’s mentor along with Brian Chow, formerly an Associate Professor in Bioengineering and a founding member of the iGEM program at MIT, and Jose Avalos, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Princeton University.

Key to the project’s development was the guidance of Bioengineering graduate students Will Benman, David Gonzalez Martinez, and Gabrielle Ho, as well as that of Saurabh Malani, a graduate student at Princeton University.

Much of the original work was conducted in Penn Bioengineering’s Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace, with important contributions made by Michael Patterson, Director of Educational Laboratories in Bioengineering, and Sevile Mannickarottu, Director of Technological Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Penn Engineering’s Entrepreneurship Program.

Read “High-throughput feedback-enabled optogenetic stimulation and spectroscopy in microwell plates” in Communications Biology.

This project was supported by the Department of Bioengineering, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research (OVPR), and by funding from the National Institute of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy (DOE).

The iGEM program was created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2003. Read stories in the BE Blog featuring recent Penn iGEM teams here.

Accelerating CAR T Cell Therapy: Lipid Nanoparticles Speed Up Manufacturing

by Ian Scheffler

Visualization of a CAR T cell (in red) attacking a cancer cell (in blue) (Meletios Varras via Getty Images)

For patients with certain types of cancer, CAR T cell therapy has been nothing short of life changing. Developed in part by Carl June, Richard W. Vague Professor at Penn Medicine, and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2017, CAR T cell therapy mobilizes patients’ own immune systems to fight lymphoma and leukemia, among other cancers.

However, the process for manufacturing CAR T cells themselves is time-consuming and costly, requiring multiple steps across days. The state of the art involves extracting patients’ T cells, then activating them with tiny magnetic beads, before giving the T cells genetic instructions to make chimeric antigen receptors (CARs), the specialized receptors that help T cells eliminate cancer cells.

Now, Penn Engineers have developed a novel method for manufacturing CAR T cells, one that takes just 24 hours and requires only one step, thanks to the use of lipid nanoparticles (LNPs), the potent delivery vehicles that played a critical role in the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines.

In a new paper in Advanced Materials, Michael J. Mitchell, Associate Professor in Bioengineering, describes the creation of “activating lipid nanoparticles” (aLNPs), which can activate T cells and deliver the genetic instructions for CARs in a single step, greatly simplifying  the CAR T cell manufacturing process. “We wanted to combine these two extremely promising areas of research,” says Ann Metzloff, a doctoral student in Bioengineering and NSF Graduate Research Fellow in the Mitchell lab and the paper’s lead author. “How could we apply lipid nanoparticles to CAR T cell therapy?”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.