When cells move throughout the body, they do so by dragging themselves, using molecular “arms” to pull themselves closer to where they need to be while unlatching themselves from the area they’re moving away from. In a recent study, Penn Engineers looked at a few mechanobiological factors that help regulate cells’ migration towards their destination, providing new insight into the gene expression feedback loops that keep them from getting stuck.
The research was led by Joel Boerckel, Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery in the Perelman School of Medicine and in Bioengineering in Penn Engineering, and bioengineering graduate student Devon Mason. Co-authors include bioengineering graduate student Joseph Collins and researchers from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana University and Purdue University.
New Vascularized Patches Could Help Patient Recovery from Heart Attacks
Heart attacks are the result of a stoppage of blood flow to the heart – an interruption to normal function that can result in severe tissue damage, or even tissue death. This loss of healthy tissue function is one of the biggest challenges in treating patients that undergo heart attacks, as the damaged tissue increases their risk of having future attacks. One of the main solutions to this issue right now is the creation of cardiac tissue scaffolds using stem cells to create a platform for new and healthy tissue to grow in vivo. A group of biomedical engineers at Michigan Technological University hopes to expand on this basis by focusing not just on cellular alignment in the scaffold but on that of microvessels too. Led by Feng Zhao, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, the team hopes that this new attention on microvessel organization will improve the vasculature of the scaffolds, and thus improve the success of the scaffolds in vivo, allowing for a better recovery from heart attacks.
Some Stem Cells May Be More Fit Than Others
Stem cells are one of the hottest research areas in the field of bioengineering today. Widely known as the cells in the human embryo that have the ability to eventually transform into specific cells for the brain, lung, and every other organ, stem cells are also of recent interest because researchers found ways to reverse this process, transforming organ-specific cells back to the pluripotent stem cell level. This achievement however, is mostly applicable to individual stem cells, and doesn’t fully encapsulate the way this process might work on a larger population level. So Peter Zandstra, Ph. D., a bioengineering faculty member at the University of British Columbia, decided to research just that.
Using mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs), Zandstra and his lab attempted to track the cells throughout their reprogramming, to more clearly trace each back to its respective parent population. Surprisingly, they found that after only one week of reprogramming, nearly 80% of the original cell population had been removed, meaning that most of the parent generation was not “fit” enough to undergo the process of reprogramming, indicating that perhaps some stem cells will have a better chance of survival in this process than others. This research may suggest that not all cells have the capacity to undergo reprogramming, as many researchers originally thought.
A New Microdevice Will Help Model Bronchial Spasms
The difficulty in breathing associated with asthma is the result of bronchial spasms, which are a kind of muscle contraction in the airways. But little was known about just how these spasms occurred in patients, so Andre Levchenko, Ph.D., Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins, and his lab created a microdevice to model them. Calling the device a “bronchi on a chip,” Levchenko and his team used a microphysiological model to look at some of the biochemical and mechanical signals associated with these kinds of muscle contractions. They found that the contractions operate in a positive feedback system, so that those caused by disturbance from allergens will subsequently cause even more contractions to occur. But surprisingly, they also found that a second contraction, if triggered at the right time during the initial contraction, could actually stop the process and allow the muscles to relax. Because asthma is a notoriously difficult disease to translate from animal to human models, this new device opens the door to understanding different mechanisms of asthma before taking research to clinical trials.
New CHOP Research Center to Focus Research on Pediatric Airway Disorders
A new bioengineering lab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia called the Center for Pediatric Airway Disorders will specialize in a variety of airway procedures for pediatric patients such as tracheal reconstruction and recurrent laryngeal nerve reinnervation. This new lab will be one of the first to give a unique focus to the application of bioengineering to pediatric laryngology. The interdisciplinary center brings together students and researchers from all different fields, including materials science and microbiology, to find new ways of repairing tissue and regenerating organs related to respiratory disorders. Specific areas of research will involve the modeling of children’s vocal cords, understanding the mechanisms of fibrosis, and improving surgical procedures.
Deeper Understanding of Sickle Cell Anemia Could Lead to New Treatments
Though sickle cell anemia is a common and well-known disease, a new study of its causes at the nanoscale level might reveal previously unknown information about the assembly of hemoglobin fibers. Using microscopes with the ability to visualize these molecules at such a small level, researchers at the University of Minnesota found that the beginning organizations that lead to sickle cell anemia are much less ordered than originally thought. Led by Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering David Wood, Ph.D., the team of researchers used this higher level of microscopy to find that hemoglobin self-assembly process, which was originally thought to be 96% efficient, is actually only 4% efficient. Wood hopes that this new knowledge will help allow for the development of new and better treatments for patients with sickle cell anemia, as there are currently only two FDA-approved ones on the market.
People & Places
Penn Today asked five Penn researchers about the women in STEM who have been a source of inspiration and encouragement throughout their own careers. Their responses include active researchers who have paved the way for better inclusion in STEM and famous female scientists from the past who broke boundaries as they made strides with their research.
This week, we want to congratulate Joel Boerckel, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering, and his lab on receiving a second R01 Grant from the National Institute of Arthritis and and Musculoskeletal Skin Diseases for their work on defining the roles of YAP and TAZ in embryonic bone morphogenesis and mechanoregulation of fracture repair. Dr. Boerckel is a member of the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory.
We would also like to congratulate Christopher Yip, Ph. D., on being appointed as the new dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering. A professor in both the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, Dr. Yip’s research involves the use of molecular imaging to understand the self-assembly of proteins.
Tulane Researchers Use Cancer Imaging Technique to Help Detect Preeclampsia
Preeclampsia is potentially life-threatening pregnancy disorder that typically occurs in about 200,000 expectant mothers every year. With symptoms of high blood pressure, swelling of the hands and feet, and protein presence in urine, preeclampsia is usually treatable if diagnosed early enough. However, current methods for diagnosis involve invasive procedures like cordocentesis, a procedure which takes a sample of fetal blood.
Researchers at Tulane School of Medicine led by assistant professor of bioengineering Carolyn Bayer, Ph.D., hope to improve diagnostics for preeclampsia with the use of spectral photoacoustic imaging. Using this technique, Bayer’s team noticed a nearly 12 percent decrease in placental oxygenation in rats with induced preeclampsia when compared to normal pregnant rats after only two days. If success in using this imaging technology continues at the clinical level, Bayer plans to find more applications of it in the detection and diagnosis of breast and ovarian cancers as well.
New CRISPR-powered device detects genetic mutations in minutes
This new chip eliminates the long and expensive amplification process involved in the typical polymerase chain reaction (PCR) used to read DNA sequences. In doing so, the CRISPR-Chip is much more of a point-of-care diagnostic, having the ability to quickly detect a given mutation or sequence when given a pure DNA sample. Led by Kiana Aran, Ph.D., the research team behind the CRISPR-Chip hopes that this new combination of nanoelectronics and modern biology will allow for a new world of possibilities in personalized medicine.
New Method of Brain Stimulation Might Alleviate Symptoms of Depression
Led by Flavio Frohlich, Ph.D., who has an adjunct appointment in biomedical engineering, this team of researchers based this new solution on information from each patient’s specific alpha oscillations, which are a kind of wave that can be detected by an electroencephalogram (EEG). Those who suffer from depression tend to have imbalanced alpha oscillations, so Frohlich and his team sought to use tACS to restore this balance in those patients. After seeing positive results from data collected two weeks after patients in a clinical trial receives the tACS treatment, Frohlich hopes that future applications will include treatment for even more mental health disorders and psychiatric illnesses.
University of Utah Researchers Receive Grant to Improve Hearing Devices for Deaf Patients
Vivek Shenoy, Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Scholar in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and Secondary Faculty in Bioengineering, has been named the recipient of the 2018–19 George H. Heilmeier Faculty Award for Excellence in Research for “for pioneering multi-scale models of nanomaterials and biological systems.”
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 George H. Heilmeier, a Penn Engineering alumnus and overseer whose technological contributions include the development of liquid crystal displays and whose honors include the National Medal of Science and Kyoto Prize.
We would also like to congratulate Jay Goldberg, Ph.D., from Marquette University on his election as a fellow to the National Academy of Inventors. Nominated largely for his six patents involving medical devices, Goldberg also brings this innovation to his courses. One in particular called Clinical Issues in Biomedical Engineering Design allows junior and senior undergraduates to observe the use of technology in clinical settings like the operating room, in an effort to get students thinking about how to improve the use of medical devices in these areas.
Billiar, who received his M.S.E. and Ph.D. from Penn, began his research by first noticing the way that cells typically respond to the mechanical stimuli in their everyday environment, such as pressure or stretching, with behaviors like migration, proliferation, or contraction. He and his research team hope to find a way to eventually predict and control cellular responses to their environment, which they hope could open doors to more forms of treatment for disorders like heart disease or cancer, where cellular behavior is directly linked to the cause of the disease.
Self-Learning Algorithm Could Help Improve Robotic Leg Functionality
Obviously, one of the biggest challenges in the field of prosthetics is the extreme difficulty in creating a device that perfectly mimics whatever the device replaces for its user. Particularly with more complex designs that involve user-controlled motion for joints in the limbs or hands, the electrical circuits implemented are by no means a perfect replacement of the neural connections in the human body from brain to muscle. But recently at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering, a team of researchers led by Francisco J. Valero-Cuevas, Ph. D., developed an algorithm with the ability to learn new walking tasks and adapt to others without any additional programming.
The algorithm will hopefully help to speed the progress of robotic interactions with the world, and thus allow for more adaptive technology in prosthetics, that responds to and learns with their users. The algorithm Valero-Cuevas and his team created takes inspiration from the cognition involved with babies and toddlers as they slowly learn how to walk, first through random free play and then from pulling on relevant prior experience. In a prosthetic leg, the algorithm could help the device adjust to its user’s habits and gait preferences, more closely mimicking the behavior of an actual human leg.
Neurofeedback Can Improve Behavioral Performance in High-Stress Situations
We’re all familiar with the concept of being “in the zone,” or the feeling of extraordinary focus that we can sometimes have in situations of high-stress. But how can we understand this shift in mindset on a neuroengineering level? Using the principal of the Yerkes-Dodson law, which says that there is a state of brain arousal that is optimal for behavioral performance, a team of biomedical engineering researchers at Columbia University hope to find ways of applying neurofeedback to improving this performance in demanding high-stress tasks.
Ultrasound Stimulation Could Lead to New Treatments for Inflammatory Arthritis
Arthritis, an autoimmune disease that causes painful inflammation in the joints, is one of the more common diseases among older patients, with more than 3 million diagnosed cases in the United States every year. Though extreme measures like joint replacement surgery are one solution, most patients simply treat the pain with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or the adoption of gentle exercise routines like yoga. Recently however, researchers at the University of Minnesota led by Daniel Zachs, M.S.E., in the Sensory Optimization and Neural Implant Coding Lab used ultrasound stimulation treatment as a way to reduce arthritic pain in mice. In collaboration with Medtronic, Zachs and his team found that this noninvasive ultrasound stimulation greatly decreased joint swelling in mice who received the treatment as opposed to those that did not. They hope that in the future, similar methods of noninvasive treatment will be able to be used for arthritic patients, who otherwise have to rely on surgical remedies for serious pain.
People and Places
Leadership and Inspiration: EDAB’s Blueprint for Engineering Student Life
To undergraduates at a large university, the administration can seem like a mysterious, all-powerful entity, creating policy that affects their lives but doesn’t always take into account the reality of their day-to-day experience. The Engineering Deans’ Advisory Board (EDAB) was designed to bridge that gap and give students a platform to communicate with key decision makers.
The 13-member board meets once per week for 60 to 90 minutes. The executive board, comprised of four members, also meets weekly to plan out action items and brainstorm. Throughout his interactions with the group, board president Jonathan Chen, (ENG ‘19, W ‘19), has found a real kinship with his fellow board members, who he says work hard and enjoy one another’s company in equal measure.
Bioengineering major Daphne Cheung (ENG’19) joined the board as a first-year student because she saw an opportunity to develop professional skills outside of the classroom. “For me, it was about trying to build a different kind of aptitude in areas such as project management, and learning how to work with different kinds of people, including students and faculty, and of course, the deans,” she says.
Purdue University College of Engineering and Indiana University School of Medicine Team Up in New Engineering-Medicine Partnership
The Purdue University College of Engineering and the Indiana University School of Medicine recently announced a new Engineering-Medicine partnership, that seeks to formalize ongoing and future collaborations in research between the two schools. One highlight of the partnership is the establishment of a new M.D./M.S. degree program in biomedical engineering that will allow medical students at Indiana University to receive M.S.-level training in engineering technologies as they apply to clinical practice. The goal of this new level of collaboration is to further involve Purdue’s engineering program in the medical field, and to exhibit the benefits that developing an engineering mindset can have for medical students. The leadership of this new partnership includes
As different as muscle, blood, brain and skin cells are from one another, they all share the same DNA. Stem cells’ transformation into these specialized cells — a process called cell fate determination — is controlled through various signals from their surroundings.
A recent Penn Engineering study suggests that cells may have more control over their fate than previously thought.
Jason Burdick, Robert D. Bent Professor of Bioengineering, and Claudia Loebel, a postdoctoral researcher in his lab, led the study. Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor for Education and Research in Orthopaedic Surgery at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, also contributed to the research.
A New Microscopy Technique Could Reduce the Risk of LASIK Surgery
Though over ten million Americans have undergone LASIK vision corrective surgery since the option became available about 20 years ago, the procedure still poses some risk to patients. In addition to the usual risks of any surgery however, LASIK has even more due to the lack of a precise way to measure the refractive properties of the eye, which forces surgeons to make approximations in their measurements during the procedure. In an effort to eliminate this risk, a University of Maryland team of researchers in the Optics Biotech Laboratory led by Giuliano Scarcelli, Ph. D., designed a microscopy technique that would allow for precise measurements of these properties.
Using a form of light-scattering technology called Brillouin spectroscopy, Scarcelli and his lab found a way to directly determine a patient’s refractive index – the quantity surgeons need to know to be able to measure and adjust the way light travels through the eye. Often used as a way to sense mechanical properties of tissues and cells, this technology holds promise for taking three-dimensional spatial observations of these structures around the eye. Scarcelli hopes to keep improving the resolution of the new technique, to further understanding of the eye, and reduce even more of the risks involved with LASIK surgery.
Taking Tissue Models to the Final Frontier
Space flight is likely to cause deleterious changes to the composition of bacterial flora, leading to an increased risk of infection. The environment may also affect the susceptibility of microorganisms within the spacecraft to antibiotics, key components of flown medical kits, and may modify the virulence of bacteria and other microorganisms that contaminate the fabric of the International Space Station and other flight platforms.
“It has been known since the early days of human space flight that astronauts are more prone to infection,” says Dongeun (Dan) Huh, Wilf Family Term Assistant Professor in Bioengineering at Penn Engineering. “Infections can potentially be a serious threat to astronauts, but we don’t have a good fundamental understanding of how the microgravity environment changes the way our immune system reacts to pathogens.”
In collaboration with G. Scott Worthen, a physician-scientist in neonatology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Huh will attempt to answer this question by sending tissues-on-chips to space. Last June, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced that the duo had received funding to study lung host defense in microgravity at the International Space Station.
Huh and Worthen aim to model respiratory infection, which accounts for more than 30 percent of all infections reported in astronauts. The project’s goals are to test engineered systems that model the airway and bone marrow, a critical organ in the immune system responsible for generating white blood cells, and to combine the models to emulate and understand the integrated immune responses of the human respiratory system in microgravity.
Sappi Limited Teams Up with the University of Maine to Develop Paper Microfluidics
At the Westbrook Technology Center of Sappi, a global pulp and paper company, researchers found ways to apply innovations in paper texture for medical use. So far, these include endeavors in medical test devices and patches for patient diagnostics. In collaboration with the Caitlin Howell, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Maine, Sappi hopes to continue advances in these unconventional uses of their paper, especially as the business in paper for publishing purposes declines.
Sappi’s projects with the university focus on the development of paper microfluidics devices as what’s now becoming a widespread solution for obstacles in point-of-care diagnostics. One project in particular, called Sharklet, uses a paper that mimics shark skin as a way to impede unwanted microbial growth on the device – a key characteristic needed for its transition into commercial use. Beyond this example, Sappi’s work in developing paper microfluidics underscores the benefits of these devices in their mass producibility and adaptability.
New Observations of the WNT Pathway Deepen the Understanding of Protein Signaling in Cellular Development
Scientists at Rice University recently found that a protein signaling pathway called WNT, typically associated with its role in early organism development, can both listen for signals from a large amount of triggers and influence cell types throughout embryonic development. These new findings, published in PNAS, add to the already known functions of WNT, deepening our understanding of it and opening the doors to new potential applications of it in stem cell research.
Led by Aryeh Warmflash, Ph. D., researchers discovered that the WNT pathway is different between stem cells and differentiated cells, contrary to prior belief that it was the same for both. Using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology, the Warmflash lab observed that the WNT signaling pathway is actually context-dependent throughout the process of cellular development. This research brings a whole new understanding to the way the WNT pathway operates, and could open the doors to new forms of gene therapy and treatments for diseases like cancers that involve genetic pathway mutations.
People and Places
In a recent article from Technical.ly Philly, named Group K Diagnostics on a list of ten promising startups in Philadelphia. Group K Diagnostics founder Brianna Wronko graduated with a B.S.E. from Penn’s Department of Bioengineering in 2017, and her point-of-care diagnostics company raised over $2 million in funding last year. Congratulations Brianna!
We would also like to congratulate Pamela K. Woodward, M.D., on her being named as the inaugural Hugh Monroe Wilson Professor of Radiology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Also a Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the university, Dr. Woodward leads a research lab with a focus on cardiovascular imaging, including work on new standards for diagnosis of pulmonary blood clots and on an atherosclerosis imaging agent.
Lastly, we would like to congratulate all of the following researchers on their election to the National Academy of Engineering:
David Bishop, Ph. D., a professor at the College of Engineering at Boston University whose current research involves the development of personalized heart tissue as an all-encompassing treatment for patients with heart disease.
Joanna Aizenberg, Ph. D., a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University who leads research in the synthesis of biomimetic inorganic materials
Gilda Barabino, Ph. D., the dean of the City College of New York’s Grove School for Engineering whose lab focuses on cartilage tissue engineering and treatments for sickle cell disease.
Karl Deisseroth, M.D., Ph. D., a professor of bioengineering at Stanford University whose research involves the re-engineering of brain circuits through novel electromagnetic brain stimulation techniques.
Rosalind Picard, Ph.D., the founder and director of the Affective Computing Research Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab whose research focuses on the development of technology that can measure and understand human emotion.
And finally, Molly Stevens, Ph. D., the Research Director for Biomedical Material Sciences at the Imperial College of London with research in understanding biomaterial interfaces for biosensing and regenerative medicine.
Synthetic Spinal Discs from a Penn Research Team Might Be the Solution to Chronic Back Pain
Spinal discs, the concentric circles of collagen fiber found between each vertebra of the spine, can be the source of immense back pain when ruptured. Especially for truck and bus drivers, veterans, and cigarette smokers, there is an increased risk in spinal disc rupture due to overuse or deterioration over time. But these patients aren’t alone. In fact, spinal discs erode over time for almost everyone, and are one of the sources of back pain in older patients, especially when the discs erode so much that they allow direct bone-to-bone contact between two or more vertebrae.
Robert Mauck, Ph.D., who is the director of the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory here at Penn and a member of the Bioengineering Graduate Group Faculty, led a research team in creating artificial spinal discs, with an outer layer made from biodegradable polymer and an inner layer made with a sugar-like gel. Their findings appear in Science Translational Medicine. These synthetic discs are also seeded with stem cells that produce collagen over time, meant to replace the polymer as it degrades in vivo over time. Though Mauck and his time are still far from human clinical trials for the discs, they’ve shown some success in goat models so far. If successful, these biodegradable discs could lead to a solution for back pain that integrates itself into the human body over time, potentially eliminating the need of multiple invasive procedures that current solutions require. Mauck’s work was recently featured in Philly.com.
An Untethered, Light-Activated Electrode for Innovations in Neurostimulation
Neurostimulation, a process by which nervous system activity can be purposefully modulated, is a common treatment for patients with some form of paralysis or neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease. This procedure is typically invasive, and because of the brain’s extreme sensitivity, even the slightest involuntary movement of the cables, electrodes, and other components involved can lead to further brain damage through inflammation and scarring. In an effort to solve this common problem, researchers from the B.I.O.N.I.C. Lab run by Takashi D.Y. Kozai, Ph. D., at the University of Pittsburgh replaced long cables with long wavelength light and a formerly tethered electrode with a smaller, untethered one.
The research team, which includes Pitt senior bioengineering and computer engineering student Kaylene Stocking, centered the device on the principle of the photoelectric effect – a concept first described in a publication by Einstein as the local change in electric potential for an object when hit with a photon. Their design, which includes a 7-8 micron diameter carbon fiber implant, is now patent pending, and Kozai hopes that it will lead to safer and more precise advancements in neurostimulation for patients in the future.
A New Microfluidic Chip Can Detect Cancer in a Drop of Blood
Many forms of cancer cannot be detected until the disease has progressed past the point of optimum treatment time, increasing the risk for patients who receive late diagnoses of these kinds of cancer. But what if the diagnostic process could be simplified and made more efficient so that even a single drop of blood could be enough input to detect the presence of cancer in a patient? Yong Zeng, Ph.D., and his team of researchers at the University of Kansas in Lawrence sought to answer that question.
They designed a self-assembled 3D-nanopatterned microfluidic chip to increase typical microfluidic chip sensitivity so that it can now detect lower levels of tumor-associated exosomes in patient blood plasma. This is in large part due to the nanopatterns in the structure of the chip, which promote mass transfer and increase surface area, which in turn promotes surface-particle interactions in the device. The team applied the device to their studies of ovarian cancer, one of the notoriously more difficult kinds of cancer to detect early on in patients.
A Wearable Respiration Monitor Made from Shrinky Dinks
Michelle Khine, Ph. D., a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of California, Irvine incorporates Shrinky Dinks into her research. After using them once before in a medical device involving microfluidics, her lab recently worked to incorporate them into a wearable respiration monitor – a device that would be useful for patients with asthma, cystic fibrosis, and other chronic pulmonary diseases. The device has the capability to track the rate and volume of its user’s respiration based on measurements of the strain at the locations where the device makes contact with the user’s abdomen.
Paired with Bluetooth technology, this sensor can feed live readings to a smartphone app, giving constant updates to users and doctors, as opposed to the typical pulmonary function test, which only provides information from the time at which the test takes a reading. Though Khine and her team have only tested the device on healthy patients so far, they look forward to testing with patients who have pulmonary disorders, in hopes that the device will provide more comprehensive and accessible data on their respiration.
People and Places
Ashley Kimbel, a high school senior from Grissom High School in Huntsville, Alabama, designed a lightweight prosthetic leg for local Marine, Kendall Bane, after an attack in Afghanistan led him to amputate one of his legs below the knee. Bane, who likes to keep as active as possible, said the new lighter design is more ideal for activities like hiking and mountain biking, especially as any added weight makes balance during these activities more difficult. Kimbel used a CAD-modeling software produced by Siemens called Solid Edge, which the company hopes to continue improving in accessibility so that more students can start projects like Kimbel’s.
We would also like to congratulate Eva Dyer, Ph.D., and Chethan Pandarinath, Ph.D., both of whom are faculty members at the Walter H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, on receiving research fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Dr. Dyer, who formerly worked with Penn bioengineering faculty member Dr. Konrad Kording while he was at Northwestern University, leads research in the field of using data analysis methods to quantify neuroanatomy. Dr. Pandarinth leads the Emory and Georgia Tech Systems Neural Engineering Lab, where he works with a team of researchers to use properties of artificial intelligence and machine learning to better understand large neural networks in the brain.
Louisiana Tech Sends First All-Female Team to RockOn
A team of faculty and students from Louisiana Tech University will participate in RockOn, a NASA-sponsored workshop on rocketry and engineering. Mechanical Engineering Lecturer Krystal Corbett, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor of bioengineering Mary Caldorera-Moore, Ph.D., will work together to lead the university’s first team of three all-female students at the event. At the program, they will have the chance to work on projects involving components of spacecraft systems, increasing students’ experience in hands-on activities and real-world engineering.
Refining Autism Treatments Using Big Data
Though treatments like therapy and medication exist for patients with autism, one of the biggest challenges that those caring for these patients face is in measuring their effects over time. Many of the markers of progress are qualitative, and based on a given professional’s opinion on a case-by-case basis. But now, a team of researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) hopes to change that with the use of big data.
Juergen Hahn, Ph. D., and his lab recently published a paper in Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience discussing their findings in connecting metabolic changes with behavioral improvements in autistic patients. Their analysis looks for multiple chemical and medical markers simultaneously in data from three distinct clinical trials involving metabolic treatment for patients. Being able to quantitatively describe the effects of current autism treatments would revolutionize clinical trials in the field, and lead to overall better patient care.
Penn Engineers Can Detect Ultra Rare Proteins in Blood Using a Cellphone Camera
One of the frontiers of medical diagnostics is the race for more sensitive blood tests. The ability to detect extremely rare proteins could make a life-saving difference for many conditions, such as the early detection of certain cancers or the diagnosis of traumatic brain injury, where the relevant biomarkers only appear in vanishingly small quantities. Commercial approaches to ultrasensitive protein detection are starting to become available, but they are based on expensive optics and fluid handlers, which make them relatively bulky and expensive and constrain their use to laboratory settings.
Knowing that having this sort of diagnostic system available as a point-of-care device would be critical for many conditions — especially traumatic brain injury — a team of engineers led by Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, David Issadore, Ph.D., at the University of Pennsylvania have developed a test that uses off-the-shelf components and can detect single proteins with results in a matter of minutes, compared to the traditional workflow, which can take days.
Treating Cerebral Palsy with Battery-Powered Exoskeletons
Cerebral palsy is one of the most common movement disorders in the United States. The disorder affects a patient’s control over even basic movements like walking, so treatments for cerebral palsy often involve the use of assistive devices in an effort to give patients better command over their muscles. Zach Lerner, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and faculty in Northern Arizona University’s Center for Bioengineering Innovation whose research looks to improve these kinds of assistive devices through the use of battery-powered exoskeletons.
Lerner and his lab recently received three grants, one each from the National Institute of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Arabidopsis Biological Resource Center, to continue their research in developing these exoskeletons. Their goal is to create devices with powered assistance at joints like the ankle or knee to help improve patient gait patterns in rehabilitating the neuromuscular systems associated with walking. The team hopes that their work under these new grants will help further advance treatment for children with cerebral palsy, and improve overall patient care.
People & Places
David Aguilar, a 19-year-old bioengineering student at Universitat Internacional de Catalunya made headlines recently for a robotic prosthetic arm that he built for himself using Lego pieces. Due to a rare genetic condition, Aguilar was born without a right forearm, a disability that inspired him to play with the idea of creating his own prosthetic arm from age nine. His design includes a working elbow joint and grabber that functions like a hand. In the future, Aguilar hopes to continue improving his own prosthetic designs, and to help create similar versions of affordable devices for other patients who need them.
This week, we would like to congratulate two recipients of the National Science Foundation’s Career Awards, given to junior faculty that exemplify the role of teacher-scholars in their research. The first recipient we’d like to acknowledge is the University of Arkansas’ Kyle Quinn, Ph.D., who received the award for his work in developing new image analysis methods and models using the fluorescence of two metabolic cofactors. Dr. Quinn completed his Ph.D. here at Penn in Dr. Beth Winkelstein’s lab, and received the Solomon R. Pollack Award for Excellence in Graduate Bioengineering Dissertation Research for his work.
The second recipient of the award we wish to congratulate is Reuben Kraft, Ph.D., who is an Assistant Professor in Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at Penn State. Dr. Kraft’s research centers around developing computational models of the brain through linking neuroimaging and biomechanical assessments. Dr. Kraft also collaborates with Kacy Cullen, Ph.D., who is a secondary faculty member in Penn’s bioengineering department and a member of the BE Graduate Group faculty.
Finally, we’d like to congratulate Dawn Elliott, Ph.D., on being awarded the Orthopaedic Research Society’s Adele L. Boskey, PhD Award, awarded annually to a member of the Society with a commitment to both mentorship and innovative research. Dr. Elliott’s spent 12 years here at Penn as a member of the orthopaedic surgery and bioengineering faculty before joining the University of Delaware in 2011 to become the founding director of the bioengineering department there. Her research focuses primarily on the biomechanics of fibrous tissue in tendons and the spine.
Detecting Infectious Diseases with Paper-Based Devices
Despite great advancements in diagnostics technology over the past few decades, patient accessibility to these technologies remains one of the biggest challenges of the field today. Particularly in low-resource areas, even simple processes can end up taking weeks or months to return results from tests that are normally completed in days. But what if these tests could be simplified to smaller, at-home tests based on properties of microfluidics – something like a pregnancy test but for infectious diseases like HIV?
Jacqueline Linnes, Ph.D., and her team of researchers at Purdue University are working towards finding a way to do just that by creating paper-based devices that use microfluidics to help carry out the necessary diagnostic tests. Specifically, her lab designed such a paper-based system that can detect HIV nucleic acids within 90 minutes of receiving a drop of patient blood. The success of this design shows promise for producing devices for diseases whose diagnostics process involve similar pathways of pathogen detection, opening the door to more applications of at-home tests based in the properties of paper microfluidics.
Here at Penn, undergraduate bioengineering students enrolled in the two-semester laboratory course Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis, and Design (BE 309 & BE 310) have the chance to create their own models of paper microfluidics delivery systems based on given time constraints in a multi-step process. Though the students’ challenge only involves water as a substrate, Linnes’ research demonstrates the later implications of studying fluid flow through a medium as cheap and accessible as paper.
Watch the video below demonstrating Dr. Linnes’ device:
Funding for Cancer Research in Tumor Mimicry and Imaging
Two of the deadliest forms of cancer today are breast cancer and pancreatic cancer, with the latter having a five-year survival rate of only about 8%. Because cancer treatments are often adjusted according to a unique patient-to-patient basis, learning how to improve predictions of tumor behavior could help determine proper therapies sooner.
Chien-Chi Lin, Ph.D., an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis, recently received a grant from the National Institute of Health to advance his research in pancreatic cancer treatment. His project under the grant involves the development of bio-inspired, responsive, and viscoelastic (BRAVE) cell-laden hydrogels to help understand cell interactions in pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, which is the most common form of malignancy in the pancreas. These hydrogels mimic tumor tissue, as well as model tumor development over time, helping to eventually find better ways of treating pancreatic cancer.
Penn’s Women in Computer Science (WiCS) Hosts FemmeHacks
Penn President Amy Gutmann and Penn Engineering Dean Vijay Kumar stopped by FemmeHacks at the Pennovation Center Feb. 9. The annual event is a beginner-friendly collegiate hackathon for women-identifying people with an interest in computer programming, and featured a day of all-levels workshops Feb. 8. The event is sponsored by Penn’s Women in Computer Science student organization.
Though the event is not specifically tailored towards applications in bioengineering, skills relating to coding and software development are increasingly important for those interested in pursuing a career in medical device design. In fact, in the evaluation of new medical devices, the FDA often focuses more on software over hardware, as the former is associated with more security liabilities, due to its relative novelty.
Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic announced the launch of an alliance last year with the goal of creating better synergy across the two renowned institutions, hoping to provide more opportunities for students with interest in medicine at all levels, from high school to postdoctoral education. Though researchers from both institutions frequently partner on projects, this new alliance will create a more structured platform for future collaborations.
We would like to commend Steven George, M.D./Ph.D., on his new position as the chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of California at Davis. His research involves the development of “organ-on-a-chip” technologies using stem cells and microfluidics to mimic human organ functions of vascularized cardiac, tumor, and pancreatic tissues.
Finally, we want to congratulate Paul Yock, M.D., on his being chosen to receive the National Academy of Engineering’s 2019 Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize. The prize honors two of Dr. Yock’s inventions from his research in interventional cardiology, one of which is Rapid Exchange, which is a kind of stenting and balloon angioplasty system. Dr. Yock is the Martha Meier Weiland Professor in the School of Medicine and Professor of Bioengineering.
Heart disease is currently the leading cause of death in the United States, resulting in about 630,000 deaths every year according to the Center for Disease Control. One of the most common side effects of heart disease is damage to blood vessels and cardiac tissue, which can ultimately lead to conditions like high blood pressure, arrhythmia, and even cardiac arrest. In serious cases of irreversible heart damage, often the only option for patients is a full heart transplant, and efforts to engineer vascularized cardiac tissue grafts have proved challenging in research so far.
But researchers Ying Zheng, Ph.D., and Charles Murry, M.D., Ph.D., both of whom have joint appointments in Bioengineering at the University of Washington, have found success in using human microvascular grafts to create working blood vessels in vitro to treat infarcted rat hearts. The new heart muscle, developed from human embryonic stem cell-derived endothelial cells in petri dishes, was grown with a focus on not only being able to easily integrate it in vivo, but also in creating a patch of vasculature that closely mirrored that of the heart. In concentrating more on the mechanical aspects of the blood vessel network, Zheng and Murry were able to better restore normal blood flow to the damaged rat hearts after integration of the grafts. The study appears in a recent edition of Nature Communications.
Another team of bioengineers, led by Michael Sacks, Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin, recently invented a software-based method for repairing mitral valves in the heart. Their work, published in the International Journal for Numerical Methods in Biomedical Engineering, uses computational modeling techniques to create a noninvasive way of simulating repairs to the mitral valve, which will allow for a better prediction of surgical procedures and postoperative side effects on a more patient-specific basis. This ability to know which treatment plan may be best-suited for a given patient is important especially for valve repair, as heart valves are notoriously difficult to model or image due to the complexity of their functions. But through the use of advanced technology in 3D echocardiography, Sacks and his team say that their new model is accurate enough to rely on in clinical settings.
Virtual Reality Assists in the Evaluation of Surgery
Any form of surgery is always a high risk procedure, as it is subject to a wide variety of sources of human error and irregularity, even with the best surgeons. Certainly, there should be a system in place to not only continually assess the knowledge of surgeons throughout their careers, but also to evaluate their practices and techniques during operation. Such an evaluation, however, would put patients at risk during the assessment of the surgeon.
But now a team of researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has developed a way of simulating colorectal surgical procedures using virtual reality technology. Suvranu De, Sc.D. — the J. Erik Jonsson ‘22 Distinguished Professor of Engineering and Head of the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Nuclear Engineering with joint appointments in Biomedical Engineering and Information Technology and Web Science —leads the project which incorporates both visual and tactile feedback for users to employ as a tool for both training and evaluating colorectal surgeons. While virtual reality simulators have been used for similar applications related to procedures like the colonoscopy, they have yet to be fully developed for open surgical procedures, because of the difficulties in creating a fully engaged and immersive environment. Nonetheless, De and his team hope that their work will lead to the creation of the first “Virtual Intelligent Preceptor,” which will allow for more advanced technological innovations in aspects of surgical education that have so far been difficult to standardize. Support for the project comes from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NBIB).
Penn BE’s Dr. Bassett on Understanding Knowledge Networks in the Brain
As a network neuroscientist, Danielle Bassett, Ph.D., Eduardo D. Glandt Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor in the Department Bioengineering, brings together insights from a variety of fields to understand how the brain’s connections form and change: mathematics, physics, electrical engineering and developmental biology, to name a few. Bassett’s recent work on the learning process also draws from linguistics, educational theory and other domains even further afield.
The intersection and interaction of knowledge from multiple sources doesn’t just describe Bassett’s methodology; it’s at the heart of her research itself. At the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics’ Annual Meeting last year, Bassett provided an address on how the structure of knowledge networks can influence what our brains can do when it comes to learning new things.
The field of bioengineering is constantly growing, and new programs are always in development. Boise State University has announced the launch of a new doctoral program in bioengineering that will begin in the fall of 2019. Developed through the collaboration of the university’s College of Health Sciences, College of Engineering, Graduate College, and College of Arts and Sciences, this new opportunity to do research in the field of bioengineering will have three study tracks available in biomechanics, mechanobiology, and human performance.
The new biomedical engineering department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has announced the department’s first faculty appointments. The founding department head will be Professor Tammy L. Haut Donahue, Ph.D., whose research focus is on the biomechanics of the musculoskeletal system. Another professor joining the department’s new faculty is Seth W. Donahue, Ph.D., who has also done research in the field of biomechanics, and specifically how it pertains to tissue regeneration.
Since we last posted, there have also been several significant academic appointments in the field of Bioengineering. This week, we would like to congratulate Bruce Tromberg, Ph.D., on his appointment as the director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). Dr. Tromberg is currently a Professor with appointments in Biomedical Engineering and Surgery at the University of California at Irvine, where he leads research in bioimaging and biophotonics. He has also served on the External Advisory Board of NIH P41 Center for Magnetic Resonance and Optical Imaging here at Penn since 2009, and has also given several lectures here on his work in bioimaging.
Secondly, we congratulate the University of Toronto’s Professor Warren Chan, Ph.D., who was recently named as a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Nanobioengineering. Professor Chan, who is also the director of the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto, conducts research in the field of nanotechnology for applications in the treatment and diagnosis of cancer and viral diseases.
And finally, we also want to congratulate Frank Pintar, Ph.D., on his appointment as the Founding Chair of the Marquette University and Medical College of Wisconsin. Dr. Pintar’s research in bioengineering involves the study of the biomechanics involved with brain and spinal cord injury, with a focus on motor vehicle crash trauma.