Week in BioE (August 10, 2017)

Preventing Transplant Rejection

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A healthy human T cell, one of the key immune system cells.

Organ transplantation is a lifesaving measure for people with diseases of the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys that can no longer be treated medically or surgically. The United Network for Organ Sharing, a major advocacy group for transplant recipients, reports that a new person is added to a transplant list somewhere in America every 10 minutes. However, rejection of the donor organ by the recipient’s immune system remains a major hurdle for making every transplant procedure successful. Unfortunately, the drugs required to prevent rejection have serious side effects.

To address this problem, a research team at Cornell combined DNA sequencing and informatics algorithms to identify rejection earlier in the process, making earlier intervention more likely. The team, led by Iwijn De Vlaminck of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, report in PLOS Computational Biology that a computer algorithm they developed to detect donor-derived cell-free DNA, a type of DNA shed by dead cells, in the blood of the recipient could predict heart and lung allograft rejection with a 99% correlation with the current gold standard. The earlier that signs of rejection are detected, the more likely it is that an intervention can be performed to save the organ and, more importantly, the patient.

Meanwhile, at Yale, scientists have used nanoparticles to fight transplant rejection. Publishing their findings in Nature Communications, the study authors, led by Jordan S. Pober, Bayer Professor of Translational Medicine at Yale, and Mark Saltzman, Goizueta Foundation Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, used small-interfering RNA (siRNA) to “hide” donated tissue from the immune system of the recipient. Although the ability of siRNA to hide tissue in this manner has been known for some time, the effect did not last long in the body. The Yale team used poly(amine-co-ester) nanoparticles to deliver the siRNA that extended and extended its duration of effect, in addition to developing methods to deliver to siRNA to the tissue before transplantation. The technology has yet to be tested in animals, but provides an exciting new approach to help solve the transplant rejection challenge in medicine.

Africa in Focus

A group of engineering students at Wright State University, led by Thomas N. Hangartner, professor emeritus of biomedical engineering, medicine and physics, traveled to Malawi, a small nation in southern Africa, to build a digital X-ray system at Ludzi Community Hospital. Once on site, Hangartner and his student team trained the staff to use system on patients. The group hopes they have made a significant contribution to improving the standard of care in the country, which currently allocates only 9% of its annual budget to healthcare. While the project admitted has limited impact, it’s important to bear in mind that expanding public health on a global level is a game of inches. The developing world will rise to the standards of the developed world one village at a time, one hospital at a time.

Speaking of Africa, the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa had global implications and prompted many international organizations to identify better methods to identify early signs of outbreak. Since diseases like Ebola can spread rapidly and aggressively, detecting the outbreak early can save thousands of lives. To this end, Tony Hu of Arizona State University’s School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering has partnered with the U.S. Army to develop a platform using porous silicone nanodisks that, coupled with a mass spectrometer, could be used to detect Ebola more quickly and less expensively. In particular, by determining the strain of the Ebola virus detected, treatment could be more specifically individualized for the patient. Dr. Hu presents the technology in a video available here.

Neurotech News

Karen Moxon, professor of biomedical and mechanical engineering at the University of California, Davis, recently showed that rats with spinal injuries recovered to a more significant extent when treated with a combination of serotonergic drugs and physical therapy. Dr. Moxon found that the treatment resulted in cortical reorganization to bypass the injury. Many consider combining two different drugs to treat a disease or injury; Moxon’s clever approach used a drug in combination with the activation of cortical circuits (electroceuticals), and approach that was not considered possible with some types of spinal cord injuries.

At Stanford,  Karl Deisseroth, professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, led a study team that recently reported in Science Translational Medicine that mice bred to have a type of autism could receive a genetic therapy that caused their brain cells to activate differently. Although the brains of the autistic mice were technically normal, the mice were unsocial and lacked curiosity. Treatment modulated expression of the CNTNAP2 gene, resulting in increased sociability and curiosity. Their findings could have tremendous implications for treating autism in humans.

Elsewhere in neurotech, Cornell announced its intention to create a neurotech research hub, using a $9 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Specializing in types of neurological imaging, the new NeuroNex Hub and Laboratory for Innovative Neurotechnology will augment the neurotech program founded at Cornell in 2015.

Academic Developments

Two important B(M)E department have developed new programs. In Montreal, McGill University has introduced a graduate certificate program in translational biomedical engineering (video here). Also at the annual meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education in Columbus, Ohio, an interdisciplinary group of scholars from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, including three professors of engineering, presented a paper entitled “The Theatre of Humanitarian Engineering.” The authors developed an experimental role-playing course in which the students developed a waste management solution for a city. According to the paper’s abstract, a core misunderstanding about engineering is the belief that it exists separately from social and political contexts. With the approach they detail, the authors believe they could address the largely unmet call for greater integration of engineering with the humanities and social sciences on the academic level.

Week in BioE (August 3, 2017)

There’s news in bioengineering every week, to be sure, but the big story this past week is one that’s sure to continue appearing in headlines for days, weeks, and months — if not years — to come. This story is CRISPR-Cas9, or CRISPR for short, the gene-editing technology that many geneticists are viewing as the wave of the future in terms of the diagnosis and treatment of genetic disorders.

Standing for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, CRISPR offers the ability to cut a cell’s genome at a predetermined location and remove and replace genes at this location. As a result, if the location is one at which the genes code for a particular disease, these genes can be edited out and replaced with healthy ones. Obviously, the implCRISPRications for this technology are enormous.

This week, it was reported that, for the first time, CRISPR was successfully used by scientists to edit the genomes of human embryos. As detailed in a paper published in Nature, these scientists edited the genomes of 50 single-cell embryos, which were subsequently allowed to undergo division until the three-day mark, at which point the multiple cells in the embryos were assessed to see whether the edits had been replicated in the new cells.  In 72% of them, they had been.

In this particular case, the gene edited out was one for a type of congenital heart defect, and the embryos were created from the eggs of healthy women and the sperm of men carrying the gene for the defect. However, the experiments prove that the technology could now be applied in other disorders.

Needless to say, the coverage of this science story has been enormous, so here is a collection of links to coverage on the topic. Enjoy!

Week in BioE (July 27, 2017)

The Brain in Focus

BrainAt Caltech, scientists are exploiting the information generated by body movements, determining how the brain codes these movements in the anterior intraparietal cortex — a part of the brain beneath the top of the skull. In a paper published in Neuron, Richard A. Andersen, James G. Boswell Professor of Neuroscience at Caltech, and his team tested how this region coded body side, body part, and cognitive strategy, i.e., intention to move vs. actual movement. They were able determine specific neuron groups activated by different movements. With this knowledge, more effective prosthetics for people experiencing limb paralysis or other kinds of neurodegenerative conditions could benefit enormously.

Elsewhere in brain science, findings of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in football players have raised significant controversy. Seeking to better understand head impact exposure in young football players, scientists from Wake Forest University led by biomedical engineer Joel D. Stitzel, fitted athletes with telemetric devices and collected four years of data and more than 40,000 impacts. They report in the Journal of Neurotrauma that, while all players experienced more high magnitude impacts during games compared to practices, younger football players experienced a greater number of such impacts during practices than the other groups, and older players experienced a greater number during actual games. The authors believe their data could contribute to better decision-making in the prevention of football-related head injuries.

Up in Canada, a pair of McGill University researchers in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery — Professor Christopher Pack and Dave Liu, a grad student in Dr. Pack’s lab — found that neuroplasticity might apply to more parts of the brain than previously thought. They report in Neuron that the middle temporal area of the brain, which contributes to motion discrimination and can be inactivated by certain drugs, could become relatively impervious to such inactivation if pretrained. Their findings could have impacts on both prevention of and cures for certain types of brain injury. 

The Virtues of Shellfish

If you’ve ever had a diagnostic test performed at the doctor’s office, you’ve had your specimen submitted to bioassay, a test in which living cells or tissue is used to test the sampled material. University of Washington bioengineer Xiaohu Gao and his colleagues used polydopamine, an enzyme occurring in shellfish, to increase the sensitivity of bioassays by orders of magnitude. As reported in Nature Biomedical Engineering, they tested the technology, called enzyme-accelerated signal enhancement (EASE), in HIV detection, finding that it was able to help bioassays identify the virus in tiny amounts. This advance could lead to earlier diagnosis of HIV, as well as other conditions.

Mussels are also contributing to the development of new bioadhesives. Julie Liu, associate professor of chemical engineering at Purdue, modeled an elastin-like polypeptide after a substance produced naturally by mussels, reporting her findings in Biomaterials. With slight materials, Dr. Liu and her colleagues produced a biomaterial with moderate adhesive strength that demonstrated the greatest strength yet among these materials when tested under water. The authors hope to develop a “smart” underwater adhesive for medical and other applications.

Science in Motion

Discussions of alternative forms of energy have focused on the big picture, such as alleviating our dependence on fossil fuels with renewable forms of energy, like the sun and wind. On a much smaller level, however, engineers are finding smaller energy sources — specifically people.

Reporting in ACS Energy Letters, a research team led by Vanderbilt’s Cary Pint, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and head of Vanderbilt’s Nanomaterials and Energy Devices Laboratory Nanomaterials and Energy Devices Laboratory, designed a battery in the form of an ultrathin black phosphorous device that can generate electricity as it is bent. Dr. Pint describes the device in a video here. Although it can’t yet power an iPhone, the possibility isn’t far away.

Moving Up

Two BE/BME departments have named new chairs. At the University of Utah, David Grainger, who previously chaired the Department of Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Chemistry, will become chair of the Department of Bioengineering. Closer to home, Michael I. Miller became the new chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering on July 1. Congratulations to them both!

Week in BioE (July 20, 2017)

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Adenocarcinoma of the pancreas, stained and viewed under a microscope.

How smartphones reveal the world of physical activity

We all know lack of exercise adversely affects our health. Policy experts often cite that exercise is such an infrequent part of people’s lives that it now constitutes a public health crisis. However, we never had a global view on how physical activity differs among all of us.

In an article recently published in Nature, scientists used smartphones to collect data on how much variation occurs in the daily activity of people from more than 100 countries.  Bioengineering professor Scott Delp and his team from Stanford used smartphones to collect 68 million days of physical activity from 717,527 people living in 111 countries.

Some of the conclusions made intuitive sense, which is always good when dealing with large data sets. For example, inactivity was strongly predictive of obesity, and this correlation was stronger in women than in men. In addition, people walked more in countries where the terrain was easier to navigate. When people were more physically active in a country, the differences in obesity rates between men and women decreased. All of this means that if it is easier to walk, people will walk, and the gender disparity in activity will shrink. Geographic data also produced interesting findings, with East Asian countries (China and Japan) walking the most, and countries near the equator walking less.  Perhaps the most significant finding is the importance of the activity gap within a country’s population, defined as the difference between highly active and inactive individuals within a country. The larger the gap, the higher likelihood for high obesity rates.  Unfortunately, the US ranks among the highest in activity gap among its population and, in turn, among the highest in national obesity rates.

While we all ponder little tricks to make us walk more (at Penn we schedule classes across campus to make the professors get up at least once a day), other work is making the task of climbing stairs easier.  Reporting in PLOS One, Lena Ting and her team from Georgia Tech developed energy-conserving stairs, using springs that store and release energy when the user ascends. Their design means that someone can save 40% energy going up their flight of stairs when compared to the traditional design. Innovations like these could be a real help to people recovering from surgeries or with age-related joint deterioration.

Networking a human

As we start to unleash the power of smartphones on health and wellness, many predict the next disruption is networking inexpensive monitoring technologies together for a single person via their smartphone. One main benefit of creating a ‘networked human’ is to monitor an individual continuously for the earliest signs of health trouble, rather than waiting for the individual to experience a significant health episode (e.g., heart attack) and unleash the powerful (but expensive) army of technologies and people for saving their life. A recent symposium was held at Northwestern University discuss the future of wearable electronics in this future. Inevitably, this will evolve the Internet of Things (IoT) into the ‘Internet of Me’ for health technologies. John Rogers of Northwestern gave a presentation showing the wearable wireless electronics he developed to monitor bodily functions in babies. The adhesive devices, which resemble temporary tattoos, are far more comfortable than many monitoring devices. Other presentations at the symposium showcased technologies for monitoring concussion, cellphone apps to facilitate psychotherapy, and more intuitive touch screens for electronics.

A Blood Test for Early Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers because it is usually only detected after it has become too advanced to treat efficaciously. However, a collaboration between Penn and Mayo Clinic scientists may have made a key advance in mitigating this threat.

A team led by Kenneth S. Zaret, Ph.D., of Penn’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine reports in Science Translational Medicine that they were able to identify thrombospondin-2, a protein, as a biomarker of pancreatic cancer. Most impressively, plasma measurements of the protein detected cancer in patients in stage I of the disease, when it can still be treated surgically. The predictive power of the biomarker test increased significantly when combined with measurements of a previously identified marker, cancer antigen 19-9, to detect pancreatic cancer at a much earlier stage.

People in the News

Our colleagues at Carnegie Mellon named a new chair of their Department of Biomedical Engineering: Bin He, Ph.D.. His appointment begins February 1, 2018. Closer to home, the Rutgers Biomedical Engineering named David I. Shreiber as its new chair. Dr. Shreiber earned his Ph.D. in Bioengineering from Penn in 1998. Congratulations to Drs. He and Shreiber!

Speaking of Penn alums, we’d like to congratulate Dr. Spencer Szczesny, who was hired as a new assistant professor at Penn State to start in the fall 2017 semester. We’re very proud of Spencer and wish him the best of luck.

Last not but not least, if you’ve flown in or out of Washington’s Dulles Airport recently, you might have seen the exhibit Life: Magnified, selections of which are available online. One of the images featured, showing skin cancer cells connected by actin, a normally occurring protein that also facilitates cancer metastasis, was created by Dr. Catherine Galbraith, who earned her BS (1986) and MS (1985) in Penn Bioengineering. Congratulations to Cathy for such wonderful visibility!

This Week in BioE (July 13, 2017)

Devices and Drug Delivery

Abdominal surgery can lead to complications when the intestines are accidentally damaged. One key point in the surgery is during wound closure, when the surgeon must place the final sutures without knowing where the underlying intestine is located. A new material designed by bioengineers can be inserted into the abdomen and protect the intestines from perforations by the surgical needle. Key features of this material include its flexibility to fit into the small incision made during laprascopy and its ability to dissolve naturally within hours upon insertion into the abdominal cavity.  Before it dissolves, the material is tough enough to protect the intestines from puncture, allowing the surgeon to close the incision with much less risk of perforation. So the material is ready when it is needed and disappears soon thereafter.

New materials appear frequently to perform the functions of naturally occurring biological tissues. For decades, several researchers attempted to re-create cartilage outside of the body. Although these artificial cartilage tissues may contain all of the right ‘ingredients’ — i.e., molecules and cells — the tissue is commonly not strong enough to withstand the forces normally experienced by the target tissue.  Recently, researchers invented a process to load the cartilage tissue surrogate while it was fabricated, a departure from the traditional process in which the tissue substitute is mechanically loaded after it is built. Both techniques are designed to make the artificial tissue stronger.  However, this subtle new design step to mechanically load during fabrication makes the cartilage substitute six times stronger than any existing manufacturing technique, raising the possibility that we can build tissue outside the body for use inside the body.

emu egg
An emu egg

Finally, the field is constantly discovering new ways to use historical observations in science. One example was an observation from the analysis of 19,000-year-old DNA from an emu egg, made possible because the DNA was protected from degradation by the calcified material present in the eggshell. This scientific observation to understand the origin of the species inspired bioengineer Bill Murphy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to create a new method to protect proteins from degradation by incorporating these proteins into mineralized materials. Reminiscent of the mineralized matrix found in the emu eggshell that protected DNA for 19,000 years, the charged mineralized matrix stabilizes the protein structure and significantly improves the stability of the protein. By designing the mineralized material to degrade slowly, this work shows that one can stabilize and release therapeutic proteins over much longer periods than previously possible.

Technological Advances in Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

Despite tremendous advances in diagnosis and treatment, cancer remains a major public health threat. Surgery is often a key part of cancer treatment, but tumor removal is complicated by the difficulty in producing surgical margins that are free of cancer cells. If cancer cells remain in the margins, it is common for the cancer to return. However, a team of researchers at the University of Washington developed a light-sheet microscope capable of imaging these surgical margins quickly – about 30 minutes. The technology could go a long way toward reducing or eliminating the 20% to 40% of cases of breast cancer in which relapse occurs.

While breast cancer remains the most common cancer among women, proliferation of HPV has resulted in a steadily increasing rate of cervical cancer over past decades. Early screening here is a key to successful treatment, but gynecological examinations are uncomfortable for many women. Failure to schedule a follow-up colposcopy is common following an abnormal Pap smear, resulting in persistently higher rates. A pocket colposcope developed by Duke Biomedical Engineering Professor Nimmi Ramanujam could close this gap in treatment. Although the colposcope must still be rigorously tested, a small group of 15 volunteers who tested the device reported that it was 80% accurate.

New BioE dept at Lehigh

Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., has announced the creation of a Department of Bioengineering. Anand Jagota, a professor formerly in the Department of Chemical Engineering, founded the department and will act as its first chair. In addition to Professor Jagota, 16 professors form the core department faculty.

Welcome to the club, Lehigh!

This Week in BioE (July 6, 2017)

Bioengineering of Genes and DNA

Since Watson and Crick published their initial studies detailing the double helix structure of DNA in the early 1960s, what we know about genetics and the nucleic acids underlying them has grown enormously. Consequently, what bioengineering can do with DNA and genes continually expands.

One fascinating bioengineering field that emerged in the past decade was DNA origami, which uses the well-established binding across DNA elements to create three-dimensional structures out of linear DNA sequences. Recent work has utilized this feature of DNA construction to make machines, rather than just parts, out of DNA.

Yonggang Ke, Ph.D., of Georgia Tech/Emory’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, constructed machines made of DNA that consist of arrays of units that can “switch” between “settings” by changing shape. A change in shape of one unit of an array can cause the other units in the array to shift; these changes are stimulated by inserting a previously deleted strand of DNA into the array. Although it has been known for some time that DNA could be used to store and transmit information, Dr. Ke’s research team proved for the first time that these arrays could be shaped physically into machines in the shapes of rectangles and tubes.

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DNA under a microscope

While we learn more about how to make DNA-based devices, we are also creating new technologies to manipulate DNA more rapidly.  Scientists at Rutgers and Harvard developed a process whereby thousands of genes could be cloned at one time to create enormous libraries of proteins. To achieve this goal, the authors used a technology called LASSO (long-adapter single-strand oligonucleotide) probes, which they have already used to clone a library using a human microbiome sample.

Instead of the traditional process of cloning one gene at a time, the team led by Professor Biju Parekkadan, Ph.D. at Rutgers, invented a technology to clone hundred of genes simultaneously. These cloned DNA segments are much longer than the length of DNA cloned with standard techniques, allowing us to test the functional significance of these much longer DNA segments.  The technology could impact a number of scientific fields because we will finally learn how long stretches of protein function — some parts may degrade other proteins, while other parts will interact and modify other proteins (e.g., phosphorylation, a key process in epigenetics). These new discoveries can be key for discovering new ways to engineer proteins and to manufacture new drugs that mimic the function of nature’s DNA products.

Using Sweat as a Biosensor

While the field learns more about the molecular-level control of DNA, we are also taking advantage of new micro- and nanoscale manufacturing processes to capture diagnostic information from easily accessible body fluids. Many clinical diagnostics use chemical measurements from blood to diagnose a disease or to take corrective action. This is not an ideal procedure because it requires either the collection of blood at a laboratory or the repeated collection of small blood volumes through a pinprick.  Either one hurts.

Bioengineers at the University of Texas at Dallas developed a wearable diagnostic device to detect cortisol, glucose, and IL-6 in body sweat, eliminating any painful needle sticks.  Its transmissions vary, but if optimized, the device could replace the painful and inconvenient practice of sticking one’s finger to obtain a drop of blood for glucose testing, which many patients with diabetes must do several times per day. Although insulin pumps have been available for some time, these are invasive devices that must be worn at all times.

Setton Named WashU BME Chair

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Lori A. Setton, Ph.D.

Lori A. Setton, Ph.D., a major innovator in the field of tissue regeneration and repair and a member of the Penn Bioengineering Departmental Advisory Board, has been named chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. Her appointment begins on August 1.

An alumna of Princeton (BSE) and Columbia (MS, Ph.D.) with degrees in mechanical engineering, Dr. Setton was on the faculty at Duke until 2015, when she moved to WashU. Over the last decade or so, she has coauthored nearly 150 peer-reviewed research papers in the field of biomedical engineering, establishing a sterling reputation as a scientist and researcher.

In addition to her distinguished career in research and academia, she is also the current president of BMES, where she has been a pioneer in fostering greater diversity within the field, both in instituting a partnership with the National Society for Black Engineers (NSBE) and as a mentor at Duke, where the introduction of a mentoring program to increase diversity among under-represented minorities has been particularly successful.

“We are thrilled that Lori was recognized with this significant leadership opportunity,” said David Meaney, Ph.D., chair of the Bioengineering Department at Penn. “As a key academic on our department advisory board, Lori’s incisive input on Penn Bioengineering has been invaluable as we grow and change as a department. I know she will be an outstanding leader for WashU.”

This Week in BioE (June 29, 2017)

Bioengineering Organ Systems

Two news stories this week detailed how bioengineering and biomedical engineering are transforming how human organ systems could be better manipulated for positive effects on health.

organ systemsOne of the critical organ transplant shortages  in medicine is the gap between patients needing a liver transplant (around 13,000 each year) and the those receiving a transplant (about 7,000). For many years, bioengineers tried to build liver tissue in sophisticated 2D and 3D structures. Yet we never really knew how nature ‘interpreted’ these structures. A research team at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital led by Takanori Takebe, MD, reported in Nature that mimicking the 3D shape of the liver was a critical part of making engineered organoids of liver show the same behavior as liver tissue in vivo. These findings show just how important form is for function in nature, bringing us a step closer to alleviating the pressure on organ transplants lists by providing engineering organs.

Not all organs need completely reconstructed replacements. Another critical target organ in the tissue engineering field is the pancreas, which is critical in regulating insulin release.  The nationwide increase in diabetes is only placing more emphasis on finding technologies to augment pancreatic function. Engineers at Duke report in Nature Biomedical Engineering that they could control glucose levels for over a week with a single injection of a new compound they synthesized in the lab.  Rather than many daily injections of insulin for controlling glucose levels in diabetics, this could lead to far less frequent injection.

Machine Diagnosis

We hear quite a bit about Big Data nowadays. This captures a very large field that includes methods to analyze bits of data reliably and quickly to establish patterns (i.e., machine learning) that can help us uncover very new and interesting relationships. Nearly all of this work focuses on narrow data streams, which means the data are largely linked to each other within a category. One example of a narrow data stream is the collection of different types of imaging scans (CT, MRI, PET) from the same patient, collated and compared to better establish how different areas of the brain function. Another example of a narrow data stream is the data contained in a patient’s electronic health record, where it includes facts from the patient’s visits with their physician and specialists.

One interesting thread that is emerging in Big Data is when one starts to cross narrow data streams and create ‘data fabric.’  This means that scientists and engineers are cross-correlating data that seem incompatible with each other, yet they are proving amazingly predictive.  One recent example is when we cross the analysis of speech — one of the earliest machine learning applications — with genetic screening data from patients. Remarkably, scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed an automated screening system that could analyze audio recordings and determine with 81% accuracy whether the speaker had Fragile X syndrome, a genetic disorder that can have a range of cognitive effects, indicated by genetic screening data. Creating these types of data fabrics could be very powerful in the future because it can use a relatively easy and accessible technology (speech recognition) as an early indicator for more through disease confirmation (genetic testing) and subsequent intervention.

Similarly, these data fabrics are allowing us to reduce our own variability in diagnosing diseases. Penn BE alum Anant Madabhushi developed an algorithm at Case Western Reserve University that was 100% accurate at identifying breast cancer by scanning mammograms, exceeding human performance. Technologies such as these that eliminate the possibility of human error could greatly decrease the rates of delayed or faulty diagnosis. Replacing physicians with computers ? I don’t think so. We all need the human touch, especially when it comes to finding out why we are sick. Capturing errors that humans make? I think so.

A Quick Note

Speaking of Penn alumni, Craig Simmons, Ph.D., who was a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Penn BE secondary faculty member Peter F. Davies, has been named the interim director of the Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto. His appointment begins next week. Congratulations to Dr. Simmons!

This Week in BioE (June 22, 2017)

Diversifying the Field

One of the ongoing issues in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine) fields is a lack of diversity among students and faculty. Bioengineering stands out among other engineering fields because it enjoys terrific gender diversity. For example, about half of Penn Bioengineers are women, a feature of our class that goes back decades.

diversifyingHowever, diversity extends well beyond gender. For example, the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) has been working to increase diversity, including among students with disabilities. A consortium of people and groups providing mentors for science students, the MRMN recently highlighted the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Entry Point! program, which focuses on helping students with physical disabilities. Mentoring, it turns out is a big part of helping these students succeed.

Another recent development that should help to increase diversity in the field is the awarding of a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Directorate of Engineering to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the College of Menominee Nation (CMN), a native American college in Wisconsin, to collaborate in engineering research and education. The new grant builds on a program begun in 2010 between the colleges to build labs and facilitate the transfer of pre-engineering students from CMN to UWM.

Brain Science Developments

Speaking of education, three recent news stories discuss how we might be able to expedite the learning process, increase intelligence, and reward ourselves when we create art. In one of the stories, a company called Kernel is investing $100 million in research at the University of Southern California to determine whether using brain implants, which have been helpful in some patients with epilepsy, can be used to increase or recover memory. If successful, this may bridge one critical treatment gap in neurology. About one out of every three people with epilepsy don’t respond to drug treatment.

In the second story, scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas were awarded a $5.8 million contract from DARPA to investigate the role of vagus nerve stimulation in accelerated learning of foreign languages. Stimulating the peripheral nervous system to activate and train areas of the brain is one more example that our nervous system is connected in ways that we do not yet understand completely. The Department of Defense hopes to use the technology to more quickly train intelligence operatives and code breakers.

Finally, in a third story involving the brain, a professor at Drexel University used functional near-infrared spectroscopy to determine which parts of the brain were activated while participants were making art. Dr. Girija Kaimal’s team found that creative endeavors activate the brain’s rewards pathway, as well as elevating the participants’ self-opinion. So making art always made people feel good about themselves; now we know more of the reasons why.

BE Alumni Among Biomaterials Society Leaders

Penn has one of the most distinctive graduate programs in the country, and is proud to graduate the first Ph.D. in Bioengineering in the United States. With such a history, our alumni have succeeded as professors, entrepreneurs, policy leaders, and industry pioneers. One recent example of this Penn tradition  is leadership in national organizations.

At this moment, several faculty in the department (Drs. Susan Margulies, Beth Winkelstein, and Dan Hammer) hold significant positions within the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), a cross-cutting national organization for Bioengineering.

Withing the field of biomaterials, the preeminent international organization is the Society for Biomaterials (SfB). Dedicated to the advancement of biomaterials science, the SfB was created more than four decades at nearly the same time the Bioengineering department was established at Penn. Many of our alumni are now part of the senior leadership in the SfB, including the following.

President: David Kohn

leaders kohn

President-elect: Andrés García

leaders garcía

Member-at-large: Helen Lu

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In fact, of the three officers elected this year, two were from Penn (Andrés and Helen).  We also have strong alumni representation across the various committees within the SfB. We extend our congratulations — with great pride — to our Penn family.