Melanie Hilman Finds Community in Bioengineering

Penn Bioengineering senior and MEAM submatriculant, Melanie Hilman

Melanie Hilman was born to be a Biomedical Engineer. The daughter of an electrical engineering father and physician mother, Melanie was inspired by her parents work and is now pursuing the intersection of their two careers: bioengineering.

LIFELONG LEARNER

Her passion for engineering began long before Melanie stepped onto Smith Walk.

“I always really loved math and science as a middle school and high school student,” Melanie says.

Melanie quickly discovered that Penn was the perfect place for her. After visiting campus as a prospective student, Melanie knew that she wanted to attend a research-driven university where innovation and discovery was at the top of the curriculum.

“Being in a place so rich with research and really smart minds motivated me to apply here and be a part of this program,” Melanie remembers.

On top of her bioengineering research, Melanie submatriculated into Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics with a focus on Mechanics of Materials because she wants to develop a deep foundation in the mathematical concepts. After gaining this experience, Melanie hopes to conduct complex research and eventually pursue a PhD.

BETWEEN TWO WORLDS

“I really like thinking about the interface between biology and today’s technologies,” Melanie comments. Right now, she’s focused on doing research but she is interested in, one day, developing biomedical technologies for the start-up industry.

As if building the future of bioengineering weren’t enough for Melanie, she is a dedicated member of the Penn community outside of the lab. Throughout her time at Penn, Melanie is a student leader of Penn Hillel, a devoted performer in the Penn Symphony Orchestra and Penn Chamber Music, and a multimedia staff member of the Daily Pennsylvanian. Even when school is out of session, Melanie represents Penn during Alternative Spring Break trips where she took on a leadership position renovating houses in West Virginia. All of this extracurricular work is important to Melanie, as she says these experiences have given her a valuable perspective to carry with her through academic, professional and personal life.

“It makes me feel really fortunate for my upbringing and my experiences,” Melanie shares.

Melanie performs at a concert with Penn Symphony Orchestra

WOMEN IN STEM

When asked about her favorite part of being at Penn Engineering, Melanie was certain about her answer: empowered women engineers.

“Having a really strong female engineering network is super valuable to me,” Melanie says.

Melanie says she’s found friendship and support among her fellow women engineers and that working with women is as fun as it is enriching. While Penn Engineering has proved itself to be an inclusive space for Melanie and others, current research shows that only 13% of professional engineers are women, and, among them, biomedical engineering ranks fourth in terms of career path of women engineers. Faced with these jarring numbers, Melanie is even more committed to encouraging other women to join her in STEM.

Most of all, she is grateful for the community she has found on campus.

“I know I’m going to have a good group of friends after I graduate. I have found other women that I hope to have lasting friendships with.”

Armed with friends and research partners, Melanie Hillman may very well turn the tides for women in engineering and usher in a new era of women in the lab who lead the charge for biomedical innovation.

Originally posted on the Penn Engineering blog.

How the Bioengineering Department’s Bio-MakerSpace Became a Hub for Start-Ups

by Sophie Burkholder

The George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory and Bio-MakerSpace, more commonly known as the Bio-MakerSpace, has recently become a hub for Penn student start-ups that continue after graduation. Beyond offering a home base for projects by Bioengineering majors, the lab is also open to Penn students, regardless of major. Unlike other departmental undergraduate labs, the Bio-MakerSpace encourages interdisciplinary projects and collaborations from students across  all different majors.

Even better, the lab has a neutral policy when it comes to intellectual property (IP), meaning all IP behind student projects belongs to the students instead of the lab or the engineering school. With a wide variety of prototyping equipment, coding and software programs installed on lab computers, and an extremely helpful lab staff, the Bio-MakerSpace provides students of all academic backgrounds the resources to turn their ideas into realities or even businesses, as a recent succession of start-ups founded in the lab has shown.

One of the most successful start-ups to come out of the Bio-MakerSpace in the last few years is Group K Diagnostics, founded by 2017 Bioengineering alumna Brianna Wronko. The company focuses on the use of a point-of-care diagnostic device called KromaHealthTM. Offering a variety of different tests based on the input of a small amount of blood, serum, or urine, the device induces a color change through a series of reactions that can be detected through image processing. Developed in part from Wronko’s senior design project (hence the name “Group K”) and in part from her experience working at an HIV clinic, Group K Diagnostics looks to expand access to care for all populations.

But not all start-ups from the Bio-MakerSpace have origins in senior design projects. Three start-ups from 2019, two of which won the Penn President’s Innovation Prize, all began as independent initiatives from students. InstaHub, founded by 2019 Wharton alumnus Michael Wong with help from Bioengineering doctoral candidate Dayo Adewole, is a company that focuses on the use of snap-on automation for light energy conservation. A simple and easy-to-install device with motion and occupancy sensors, InstaHub aims to reduce energy consumption in a way that’s simpler and cheaper than rewiring projects that might otherwise be required. Here, Adewole shares the way that access to the Bio-MakerSpace provided InstaHub with a helpful platform.

The second start-up from 2019 to come out of the Bio-MakerSpace and win a President’s Innovation Prize is Strella Biotechnology, founded by recent graduate Katherine Sizov (Biology 2019). In developing sensors with the ability to detect ethylene gas emitted by rotting fruits, Strella hopes to reduce the immense amount of food waste due to produce simply going bad in storage. With a patent-pending biosensor that mimics the way ripe fruits detect ethylene emissions of nearby rotting fruits, the technology behind Strella involves both biology and aspects of engineering. In this video, Sizov herself talks about the way that the Bio-MakerSpace opened its doors to her, and allowed her work to really take off with the help of resources she wouldn’t have easily found otherwise.

Yet another start-up to use the Bio-MakerSpace as a launch pad for innovation is BioAlert Technologies, comprised of a group of Penn engineering undergraduate and graduate students, including 2019 Bioengineering alumnus Johnny Forde and current Biotechnology student Marc Rosenberg, who is the startup’s CEO and founder. BioAlert’s innovations are in what they call continuous infection monitoring (CIM) systems, designed to detect infections in patients with diabetic foot ulcers. Often, even when properly bandaged by a doctor, these ulcers run the risk of bacterial infection once a patient returns home and continues to care for the wound. BioAlert uses their platform to assess whether or not a bacterial infection might occur in a given patient’s wound, and uses an app to alert both patients and doctors of it, so that patients can receive the proper response treatment and medication as quickly as possible.

Though each of these start-ups used the resources of the Bio-MakerSpace, they are each interdisciplinary approaches to solving real-world problems today. Paired with other student resources at Penn like courses offered under an Engineering Entrepreneurship minor, knowledge from the nearby Wharton business school professors, and competitions like the Rothberg Catalyzer, the Bio-MakerSpace allows for any student to transform their idea into a reality, and potentially take it to market.

Interested in learning more? Contact the BE Labs.

Penn Nanoparticles are Less Toxic to T Cells Engineered for Cancer Immunotherapy

An artist’s illustration of nanoparticles transporting mRNA into a T cell (blue), allowing the latter to express surface receptors that recognize cancer cells (red). (Credit: Ryan Allen, Second Bay Studios)

New cancer immunotherapies involve extracting a patient’s T cells and genetically engineering them so they will recognize and attack tumors. This type of therapy is not without challenges, however. Engineering a patient’s T cells is laborious and expensive. And when successful, the alterations to the immune system immediately make patients very sick for a short period of time, with symptoms including fever, nausea and neurological effects.

Now, Penn researchers have demonstrated a new engineering technique that, because it is less toxic to the T cells, could enable a different mechanism for altering the way they recognize cancer, and could have fewer side effects for patients.

The technique involves ferrying messenger RNA (mRNA) across the T cell’s membrane via a lipid-based nanoparticle, rather than using a modified HIV virus to rewrite the cell’s DNA. Using the former approach would be preferable, as it only confers a temporary change to the patient’s immune system, but the current standard method for getting mRNA past the cell membrane can be too toxic to use on the limited number of T cells that can be extracted from a patient.

Michael Mitchell, Margaret Billingsley, and Carl June

The researchers demonstrated their technique in a study published in the journal Nano Letters. It was led by Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation of bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Margaret Billingsley, a graduate student in his lab.

They collaborated with one of the pioneers of CAR T therapy: Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies in the Abramson Cancer Center and the director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at the Perelman School of Medicine.

Read more at Penn Engineering blog.

Bioengineering Round-Up (January 2020)

by Sophie Burkholder

University of Washington Researchers Engineer a New Way to Study Circulatory Obstruction

Capillaries are one of the most important forms of vasculature in our body, as they allow our blood to transfer nutrients to other parts of our body. But for how much effect capillary functionality can have on our health, their small size makes them extremely difficult to engineer into models for a variety of diseases. Now, researchers at the University of Washington led by Ying Zheng, Ph. D., engineered a three-dimensional microvessel model with living cells to study the mechanisms of microcirculatory obstruction involved with malaria.

Rather than just achieving a physical model of capillaries, these researchers created a model that allowed them to study typical flow and motion through capillaries, before comparing it to deficiencies in this behavior involved with diseases like malaria. The shape of the engineered model is similar to that of an hourglass, allowing the researchers to study instances where red blood cell transit may encounter bottlenecks between the capillaries and other vessels. Using multiphoton technology, Zheng and her team created 100mm capillary models with etched-in channels and a collagen base, to closely model the typical size and rigidity of the vessels. Tested with malaria-infected blood cells, the model showed similar circulatory obstructive behavior to that which occurs in patients, giving hope that this model can be transferred to other diseases involving such obstruction, like sickle cell anemia, diabetes, and cardiovascular conditions.

Understanding a Cell Membrane Protein Could Be the Key to New Cancer Treatments

Almost every cell in the body has integrins, a form of proteins, on its membrane, allowing cells to sense biological information from beyond their membranes while also using this feedback information to initiate signals within cells themselves. Bioengineers at the Imperial College of London recently looked at the way another membrane protein, called syndecan-4, interacts with integrins as a potential form of future cancer treatment. Referred to as “cellular hands” by lead researcher of the study Armando del Rio Hernandez, Ph.D., syndecan-4 sometimes controls the  development of diseases or conditions like cancer and fibrosis. Hernandez and his team specifically studied the ties of syndecan-4 to yes-associated protein (YAP) and enzyme called P13K, both of which are affiliated with qualities of cancer progression like halted apoptosis or cell stiffening. Knowing this, Hernandez and his team hope to continue research into understanding the mechanisms of syndecan-4 throughout the cell, in search of new mechanisms and targets to focus on with future developments of cancer treatments.

A New Medical Device Could Improve Nerve Functionality After Severe Damage

Serious nerve damage remains difficult to repair surgically, often involving the stretching of nerves for localized damage, or the transfer of healthy nerve cells from another part of the body to fill larger gaps in nerve damage. But these imperfect solutions limit the return of full nerve function and movement to the damaged part of the body, and in more serious cases with large areas of nerve damage, can also risk damage in other areas of the body that healthy nerves are borrowed from for treatment. A new study from the University of Pittsburgh published in Science Translational Medicine led by Kacey Marra, Ph. D., has successfully repaired nerve damage in mice and monkeys using a biodegradable tube that releases growth factors called glial-cell-derived neurotrophic factors over time.

Marra and her team showed that this new device restored nerve function up to 80% in nonhuman primates, where current methods of nerve replacement often only achieve 50-60% functionality restoration. The device might have an easier time getting FDA-approval, since it doesn’t involve the use of stem cells in its repair mechanisms. Hoping to start human clinical trials in 2021, Marra and her team hope that the device will help both injured veterans and typical patients with nerve damage, and see potential future applications in facial nerve damage as well.

A New Computational Model Could Improve Treatments for Cancer, HIV, and Autoimmune Diseases

With cancer, HIV, and other autoimmune diseases, the best treatment options for patients are often determined with trial-and-error methods, leading to prolonged instances of ineffective approaches and sometimes unnecessary side effects. A group of researchers led by Wesley Errington, Ph.D., at the University of Minnesota decided to take a computational approach this problem, in an effort to more quickly and efficiently determine the most appropriate treatment for a given patient. Based on parameters controlling interactions between molecules with multiple binding sites, the team’s new model looks primarily at binding strength, linkage rigidity, and size of linkage arrays. Because diseases can often involve issues in molecular binding, the model aimed to model the 78 unique binding configurations for cases of when interacting molecules only have three binding sites, which are often difficult to observe experimentally. This new approach will allow for faster and easier determination of treatments for patients with diseases involving these molecular interactions.

Improved Drug Screening for Glioblastoma Patients

A new microfluidic brain chip from researchers at the University of Houston could help improve treatment evaluations for brain tumors. Glioblastoma patients, who have a five-year survival rate of a little over 5%, are some of the most common patients suffering from malignant brain tumors. This new chip, developed by the lab of Yasemin Akay, Ph.D., can quickly determine cancer drug effectiveness by analyzing a piece of cultured tumor biopsy from a patient by incorporating different chemotherapy treatments through the microfluidic vessels. Overall, Akay and her team found that this new chip holds hope as a future efficient and inexpensive form of drug screening for glioblastoma patients.

People and Places

The brain constructs maps to guide people, not just of physical spaces but also to connect stimuli around them, like conversations and other people. It’s long been known that the brain area responsible for this spatial navigation—the medial temporal lobe—is also involved in recalling memories.

Michael Kahana (left) is principal investigator in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s RAM program and a professor in the Department of Psychology. Ethan Solomon is an M.D./Ph.D. student in the Department of Bioengineering of the School of Engineering and Applied Science and in the Perelman School of Medicine.

Now, neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania have discovered that the signals the brain produces during spatial navigation and episodic memory recall look similar. Low-frequency brain waves called the theta rhythm appear as people jump from one memory to the next, as many prior studies looking only at human navigation have shown. The new findings, which suggest that the brain structures responsible for helping people navigate the world may also “navigate” a mental map of prior experiences, appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read the rest of this story featuring Penn Bioengineering’s Graduate Group member Michael Kahana and M.D./Ph.D. student Ethan Solomon on Penn Today.

The Florida Institute of Technology recently announced plans to start construction in spring 2020 on a new Health Sciences Research Center, set to further establish biomedical engineering and pre-medical coursework and research at the institute. With plans to open the new center in 2022, Florida Tech anticipates increased enrollment in the two programs, and hopes that the center will offer more opportunities in a growing professional field.

Anson Ong, Ph.D., the Associate Dean of Administration and Graduate Programs at the University of Texas at San Antonio, was recently elected to the International College of Fellows of Biomaterials Science and Engineering. With a focus on research in biomaterial implants for orthopaedic applications, Ong’s election to the college honors his advancement and contribution to the field of biomaterials research.

After President’s Innovation Prize, InstaHub has Even More Spark

This past spring, we congratulated the founders of InstaHub, one of the winners of the President’s Innovation Prize. The initial development work for InstaHub was also done in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace here in Penn Bioengineering. Check out the article and video below to learn more about InstaHub’s efforts to fight climate change.

By Lauren Hertzler

As he processed down Locust Walk the day of Commencement, Michael Wong didn’t miss a beat. He took in with pride all his interactions with friends, every cheer from the crowd, and each step on his final day as an undergraduate at Penn.

The first in his family to go to college, Wong would not only graduate that day with a degree from the Wharton School. Thanks to a President’s Innovation Prize (PIP), he’d also graduate with a full-fledged startup and significant funding in hand, ready and willing to take on his next chapter.

“The whole day of graduation I was like ‘Wow, this is amazing,’” recalls Wong. “It’s one of my favorite moments.”

Wong, from Oakland, California, founded InstaHub in 2016. Working with Dayo Adewole, a doctoral candidate in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the pair designed a snap-on motion sensor device that attaches onto existing light switches. It is battery powered, with occupancy sensing capabilities, and is easy to install. With PIP, which awarded Wong $100,000 (plus $50,000 for living expenses), he says he’s been able to do rapid prototyping to move InstaHub forward.

Continue reading at Penn Today.

Strella Biotechnology tackles food waste by ‘hacking the fruit’

Last spring, we congratulated Penn Bioengineering graduating BE senior Malika Shukurova (BSE ’19) and her co-founder Katherine Sizov (Biology ’19) on their President’s Innovation Prize for their start-up Strella Biotechnology. Katherine began the work for what became Strella as a sophomore in the Penn Bioengineering George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace. For more info on their company, check out the article and video below.

by Eric K. Brockmeier

On the second floor of the Pennovation Center, Strella Biotechnology is hard at work turning their student-led startup into a full-fledged company that’s ready to make a major impact in the agricultural sector.

May graduates Katherine Sizov and Malika Shukurova, respectively the CEO and head of R&D at Strella, share a 2019 President’s Innovation Prize, which includes $100,000 of financial support, a $50,000 living stipend for both awardees, and a year of dedicated co-working and lab space at the Pennovation Center. The alumnae and their company are now poised to take on the challenge of $1 trillion worth of food waste.

Strella’s biosensors are designed to give packers real-time data on how ripe their fruits are while being stored between harvesting and selling. Using bio-inspired sensors that measure the ethylene gas produced by fruits as they ripen, Strella successfully “hacked the fruit” to create their patent-pending biosensors. Now, only six months after graduation, Strella has six paying customers and is aiming for $100,000 in sales by the end of the season.

Beyond the work needed to deploy their first paid product, Strella also has a clear view of what needs to be done for future progress of the company. This means running experiments in the lab to refine their current sensors while conducting other experiments that will help the company be able to monitor other types of fresh foods. It’s a job that Shukurova says involves a lot of multitasking and requires an “all-hands” approach to problem solving.

“We set up experiments that run for several days, and during that period we work on different tasks. I prepare for the next set of experiments, Jacob [Jordan] and Katherine travel to our customers to deploy sensors, and Zuyang [Liu]]works on IoT [Internet of Things]. At the end of the day we all come together to discuss results and future plans,” says Shukurova about their company’s work flow.

Continue reading at Penn Today.

Rebound Liberia Kicks Into a New Phase

Last spring, we congratulated Penn Bioengineering graduating senior Oladunni Alomaja (BSE ’19) and her partners at Rebound Liberia on their President’s Engagement Prize. Check out the article and video below on their exciting project.

By Brandon Baker

Fueled by the encouragement and support they received this spring and summer, the three Penn alumni behind Rebound Liberia are now laser-focused on carrying their mission of promoting education and empowerment straight to the basket.

The Rebound Liberia team is led by Princess Aghayere, Oladunni Alomaja, and Summer Kollie, all May Penn graduates who received the President’s Engagement Prize — a $100,000 project prize and $50,000 living stipend per team member, awarded for post-graduation projects that make a positive, lasting difference in the world. The trio, each of whom has connections to West Africa and strives to give back, proposed an NGO that would bridge the literacy gap in post-conflict Liberia between male and female youth through workshops and a basketball program for women.

On Sept. 4, after months of preparation, the team relocated to Monrovia, Liberia, and is settling in.

“I think there’s some cultural shock,” says Aghayere, musing about the adjustment. “But Penn is a great place to travel and a lot of us took advantage of opportunities to travel. I’m not surprised, because this is not my first time on the continent, but there are things unique about Liberia. Getting used to the accents, the weather, the currency — but it’s fun.”

Aghayere and Alomaja were born in Nigeria, while Kollie is from Liberia.

Their days so far, they explain, have been consistently jam-packed with meetings. At present, they’re planning an inter-school basketball tournament to introduce their program to Liberia; in recent weeks, they’ve made connections with school administrators, found their footing in the community, and worked through the logistics of organizing a tournament — which, they note, they had some practice with in 2018, creating a summer basketball clinic in Monrovia, Liberia, for girls that was hosted twice a week.

The upcoming tournament, which will include 120 female players on Nov. 22–24, represents a first step toward their larger intention to build a basketball court and program, and marry that with literacy resources. They aim to serve approximately 60 girls in their program.

“We didn’t think it would be wise to move in September and not have an event until the next June or so, so we thought [of] the tournament,” says Aghayere, explaining the origins of the tournament. “At first, we were thinking we’d have a team and foster the game amongst girls here in Monrovia, and we wanted to include a lot more girls and create this sort of league of our own while introducing ourselves as this new social enterprise in Liberia. We thought a tournament would be a launch of Rebound Liberia and introduce us to the community here.”

Continue reading at Penn Today.

Bioengineering Round-Up (December 2019)

by Sophie Burkholder

Positive results in first-in-U.S. trial of CRISPR-edited immune cells

3D render of the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing system

Genetically editing a cancer patient’s immune cells using CRISPR/Cas9 technology, then infusing those cells back into the patient appears safe and feasible based on early data from the first-ever clinical trial to test the approach in humans in the United States. Researchers from the Abramson Cancer Center have infused three participants in the trial thus far—two with multiple myeloma and one with sarcoma—and have observed the edited T cells expand and bind to their tumor target with no serious side effects related to the investigational approach. Penn is conducting the ongoing study in cooperation with the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy and Tmunity Therapeutics.

“This trial is primarily concerned with three questions: Can we edit T cells in this specific way? Are the resulting T cells functional? And are these cells safe to infuse into a patient? This early data suggests that the answer to all three questions may be yes,” says the study’s principal investigator Edward A. Stadtmauer, section chief of Hematologic Malignancies at Penn. Stadtmauer will present the findings next month at the 61st American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting and Exposition.

Read the rest of the story on Penn Today.

Tulane researchers join NIH HEAL initiative for research into opioid crisis

A Tulane University professor and researcher of biomedical engineering will join fellow researchers from over 40 other institutions in the National Institute of Health’s Help to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) Initiative. Of the $945 million that make up the project, Michael J. Moore, Ph.D. will receive a share of $1.2 million to advance research in modeling human pain through computer chips, with the help of fellow Tulane researchers Jeffrey Tasker, Ph.D., and James Zadina, Ph.D., each with backgrounds in neuroscience.

Because of the opioid epidemic sweeping the nation, Moore notes that there’s a rapid search going on to develop non-addictive painkiller options. However, he also sees a gap in adequate models to test those new drugs before human clinical trials are allowed to take place. Here is where he hopes to step in and bring some innovation to the field, by integrating living human cells into a computer chip for modeling pain mechanisms. Through his research, Moore wants to better understand not only how some drugs can induce pain, but also how patients can grow tolerant to some drugs over time. If successful, Moore’s work will lead to a more rapid and less expensive screening option for experimental drug advancements.

New machine learning-assisted microscope yields improved diagnostics

Researchers at Duke University recently developed a microscope that uses machine learning to adapt its lighting angles, colors, and patterns for diagnostic tests as needed. Most microscopes have lighting tailored to human vision, with an equal distribution of light that’s optimized for human eyes. But by prioritizing the computer’s vision in this new microscope, researchers enable it to see aspects of samples that humans simply can’t, allowing for a more accurate and efficient diagnostic approach.

Led by Roarke W. Horstmeyer, Ph.D., the computer-assisted microscope will diffuse light through a bowl-shaped source, allowing for a much wider range of illumination angles than traditional microscopes. With the help of convolutional neural networks — a special kind of machine learning algorithm — Horstmeyer and his team were able to tailor the microscope to accurately diagnose malaria in red blood cell samples. Where human physicians typically perform similar diagnostics with a rate of 75 percent accuracy, this new microscope can do the same work with 90 percent accuracy, making the diagnostic process for many diseases much more efficient.

Case Western Reserve University researchers create first-ever holographic map of brain

A Case Western Reserve University team of researchers recently spearheaded a project in creating an interactive holographic mapping system of the human brain. The design, which is believed to be the first of its kind, involves the use of the Microsoft HoloLens mixed reality platform. Lead researcher Cameron McIntyre, Ph.D., sees this mapping system as a better way of creating holographic navigational routes for deep brain stimulation. Recent beta tests with the map by clinicians give McIntyre hope that the holographic representation will help them better understand some of the uncertainties behind targeted brain surgeries.

More than merely providing a useful tool, McIntyre’s project also brings together decades’ worth of neurological data that has not yet been seriously studied together in one system. The three-dimensional atlas, called “HoloDBS” by his lab, provides a way of finally seeing the way all of existing neuro-anatomical data relates to each other, allowing clinicians who use the tool to better understand the brain on both an analytical and visual basis.

Implantable cancer traps reduce biopsy incidence and improve diagnostic

Biopsies are one of the most common procedures used for cancer diagnostics, involving a painful and invasive surgery. Researchers at the University of Michigan are trying to change that. Lonnie Shea, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical engineering at the university, worked with his lab to develop implants with the ability to attract any cancer cells within the body. The implant can be inserted through a scaffold placed under the patient’s skin, making it a more ideal option than biopsy for inaccessible organs like lungs.

The lab’s latest work on the project, published in Cancer Research, details its ability to capture metastatic breast cancer cells in vivo. Instead of needing to take biopsies from areas deeper within the body, the implant allows for a much simpler surgical procedure, as biopsies can be taken from the implant itself. Beyond its initial diagnostic advantages, the implant also has the ability to attract immune cells with tumor cells. By studying both types of cells, the implant can give information about the current state of cancer in a patient’s body and about how it might progress. Finally, by attracting tumor and immune cells, the implant has the ability to draw them away from the area of concern, acting in some ways as a treatment for cancer itself.

People and Places

Cesar de la Fuente-Nunez, PhD

The Philadelphia Inquirer recently published an article detailing the research of Penn’s Presidential Assistant Professor in Psychiatry, Microbiology, and Bioengineering, Cesar de la Fuente, Ph.D. In response to a growing level of worldwide deaths due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, de la Fuente and his lab use synthetic biology, computation, and artificial intelligence to test hundreds of millions of variations in bacteria-killing proteins in the same experiment. Through his research, de la Fuente opens the door to new ways of finding and testing future antibiotics that might be the only viable options in a world with an increasing level of drug-resistant bacteria

Emily Eastburn, a Ph.D. candidate in Bioengineering at Penn and a member of the Boerckel lab of the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory, recently won the Ashton fellowship. The Ashton fellowship is an award for postdoctoral students in any field of engineering that are under the age of 25, third-generation American citizens, and residents of either Pennsylvania or New Jersey. A new member of the Boerckel lab, having joined earlier this fall, Eastburn will have the opportunity to conduct research throughout her Ph.D. program in the developmental mechanobiology and regeneration that the Boerckel lab focuses on.

Scholarship donors, students celebrate at ‘electric’ event

Nearly four years ago, when Angelica Du was a freshman, she recalled being completely “awestruck” upon walking into her first Scholarship Celebration.

“It’s just really warm,” the now-senior noted at this year’s event, which took place Wednesday, Nov. 20. “My donors have always been so warm with me.”

Seniors Angelica Du and Hayley Boote pose for a photo with Penn President Amy Gutmann at the Scholarship Celebration.

Du—with a smile that’s constant, as well as contagious—scanned the red-and-blue draped walls of the John R. Rockwell Gymnasium, completely transformed for the yearly event on campus, and eyed the appetizers being passed. She glanced at her proud mom, a few folks over. Hosted by the Undergraduate Named Scholarship Program, the Celebration is one that has grown to attract hundreds of scholarship donors and their recipients and families, for an evening of networking and good-old-fashioned catching up.

“[Angelica] tells me that she’s proud,” said Jerry Riesenbach, a Wharton School alumnus who helped support Du’s cost of education through the Class of 1960 scholarship fund. “And I said to her, she makes us proud. Being able to provide funds is one thing, but seeing the benefit that goes to these young people, who have such tremendous aspirations and are so grateful, is another.”

At Penn, Du, who will graduate with her bachelor’s in bioengineering in May and her master’s in December 2020, designs robots and conducts neurobiology research. She teaches thermodynamics and critical writing to her peers. She sings for a Disney-themed a cappella group, serves her community in a Christian union, celebrates her culture in the Penn Philippine Association, and advocates within several honor societies. This past summer, she worked at Thermo Fisher Scientific, running experiments for a next-generation sequencer that will take a patient’s DNA, sequence it, and diagnose it within 24 hours.

Read the full story at Penn Today.  Media contact Lauren Hertzler.

Student Spotlight: Katie Falcone

Master’s student Katie Falcone

Next up in our student spotlight series is graduate student Katie Falcone, a second-year Master’s student Bioengineering. Originally from the Philadelphia suburbs, Katie did her undergraduate degree at Drexel University’s Biomedical Engineering program and has been living in the University City area for almost nine years.

 

 

 

What drew you to the field of Bioengineering?

What originally drew me to this field was a “Women in Engineering Day” I attended at a local college while in high school. I had the opportunity to hear incredible women speak about their research regarding biomaterials and tissue engineering. This event showed me the impact this field can have on the world. This drove me to pursue an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering, which only strengthened my passion. As I furthered my studies and began working full-time at a biotechnology company, I learned more about bioengineering. With encouragement from my coworkers and family, I decided to pursue my Master’s in Bioengineering and am delighted to have the opportunity to study at Penn.

What kind of research do you conduct, and what do you hope to focus on for your thesis?

I am actually a part-time student, who works full-time at a drug packaging and medical device company out in Exton, PA. Though I am not doing research on campus, my coursework has tied into previous research projects I have participated in at my job. My latest project entailed understanding different material properties used in container closure systems for mAb-based biologics and how they interact. This work was done to support an understanding of how to pick appropriate vial/syringe systems for various drug products in development.

What’s your favorite thing to do on Penn’s campus or in Philly?

My favorite thing to do is trying all the new restaurants and incredible foods this city has to offer. I think Philadelphia is so unique and has such rich cultural influences. With so many different neighborhoods and restaurant options you really can’t go wrong.

What did you study for your undergraduate degree, how does it pair with the work you’re doing now, and what advice would you give to your undergraduate self?

My undergraduate degree was in Biomedical Engineering. It has supported my graduate coursework very well and has given me a great opportunity to dive deeper into certain parts of my studies.

My advice to my younger self would be to take your time! It took me a little while to evaluate different graduate programs and choose which was right for me. Though it took some time, I ultimately decided what was best for me and couldn’t be happier with my choices.

What are you thinking about doing after graduate school?

Currently, I work full-time as an Associate Packaging Engineer at West Pharmaceutical Services in Exton, PA. I hope to take my degree to further my career and to help support my future aspirations at this company.