Penn Establishes the Center for Precision Engineering for Health with $100 Million Commitment

by Evan Lerner

The Center for Precision Engineering for Health will bring together researchers spanning multiple scientific fields to develop novel therapeutic biomaterials, such as a drug-delivering nanoparticles that can be designed to adhere to only to the tissues they target. (Image: Courtesy of the Mitchell Lab)

The University of Pennsylvania announced today that it has made a $100 million commitment in its School of Engineering and Applied Science to establish the Center for Precision Engineering for Health.

The Center will conduct interdisciplinary, fundamental, and translational research in the synthesis of novel biomolecules and new polymers to develop innovative approaches to design complex three dimensional structures from these new materials to sense, understand, and direct biological function.

“Biomaterials represent the ‘stealth technology’ which will create breakthroughs in improving health care and saving lives,” says Penn President Amy Gutmann. “Innovation that combines precision engineering and design with a fundamental understanding of cell behavior has the potential to have an extraordinary impact in medicine and on society. Penn is already well established as an international leader in innovative health care and engineering, and this new Center will generate even more progress to benefit people worldwide.”

Penn Engineering will hire five new President’s Penn Compact Distinguished Professors, as well as five additional junior faculty with fully funded faculty positions that are central to the Center’s mission. New state-of-the-art labs will provide the infrastructure for the research. The Center will seed grants for early-stage projects to foster advances in interdisciplinary research across engineering and medicine that can then be parlayed into competitive grant proposals.

“Engineering solutions to problems within human health is one of the grand challenges of the discipline,” says Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering. “Our faculty are already leading the charge against these challenges, and the Center will take them to new heights.”

This investment represents a turning point in Penn’s ability to bring creative, bio-inspired approaches to engineer novel behaviors at the molecular, cellular, and tissue levels, using biotic and abiotic matter to improve the understanding of the human body and to develop new therapeutics and clinical breakthroughs. It will catalyze integrated approaches to the modeling and computational design of building blocks of peptides, proteins, and polymers; the synthesis, processing, and fabrication of novel materials; and the experimental characterizations that are needed to refine approaches to design, processing, and synthesis.

“This exciting new initiative,” says Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein, “brings together the essential work of Penn Engineering with fields across our campus, especially in the Perelman School of Medicine. It positions Penn for global leadership at the convergence of materials science and biomedical engineering with innovative new techniques of simulation, synthesis, assembly, and experimentation.”

Examples of the types of work being done in this field include new nanoparticle technologies to improve storage and distribution of vaccines, such as the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines; the development of protocells, which are synthetic cells that can be engineered to do a variety of tasks, including adhering to surfaces or releasing drugs; and vesicle based liquid biopsy for diagnosing cancer.

N.B.: This story originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

Beth Winkelstein is the Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor in Bioengineering.

The featured illustration comes from a recent study led by Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, and Margaret Billingsley, a graduate student in his lab.

Engineering Entrepreneurship with Professor Thomas Cassel

Thomas A.V. Cassel, Practice Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, recently sat down with Dayo Adetu (BSE 2019, MSE 2021), President of the Penn Graduate Association of Bioengineers (GABE), to give his insight into engineering entrepreneurship. Cassel is the Director of Penn’s Engineering Entrepreneurship Program, which he founded twenty one years ago. He joined Penn’s faculty in 1999 following a 20-year career of entrepreneurial business leadership.

Watch the video to hear about Cassel’s favorite Penn memories, the day-to-day experience of working at a startup, advice for venturing into entrepreneurship, and more.

Interact, Adapt, Repeat

Sophomores Linda Wu and Nova Meng spent the summer studying coevolution among plants, mutualistic bacteria, and parasitic nematodes in Corlett Wood’s biology lab.

by Katherine Unger Baillie

To study coevolution, the responsibilities of Nova Meng and Linda Wu included caring for plants in the Penn greenhouse. (Image: From July 2021, when masks were not required)

Coevolution is all around us. Think of the elongated blooms that perfectly accommodate a hummingbird’s slender mouth parts. But not all examples of species influencing one another’s evolutionary course accrue benefits to all parties. Tradeoffs are part of the game.

This summer, sophomores Linda Wu of Annandale, Virginia, and Nova Meng of Akron, Ohio, researched an coevolutionary scenario with benefits as well as costs for the species involved. Their work, supported by the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program (PURM) and conducted in the lab of biology professor Corlett Wood, has examined the relationship among plants in the genus Medicago, beneficial bacteria that dwell in their roots, and parasitic nematodes that try to steal the plants’ nutrients.

The Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships provides students in the PURM program awards of $4,500 during the 10-week summer research internship. Wu and Meng stayed busy through those weeks. Whether evaluating plants in a soybean field in Michigan or tending to hundreds—even thousands—of plants in the greenhouse at Penn, these aspiring researchers built a foundation for future scientific endeavors with hands-on practice.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” says Wu. “I’ve always been interested in genetics and evolution and have found parasitic relationships in particular really interesting. I like reading about weird parasites. This summer I’ve gotten to participate in lab meetings, read books about coevolution, and expand my knowledge about the topic.”

Mentored by Ph.D. student McCall Calvert, Wu spent the summer focused on the parasites in the Medicago model system the Wood lab uses. “I’m trying to see if those nematodes are specialists or generalists, if they’re locally adapted to their host plant or open to parasitizing on different species,” Wu says.

To do so, she’s grown pots and pots of plants in the Penn greenhouse, experimentally infecting Medicago plants as well as other species, such as carrot and daisy plants, with nematodes, to measure the degree to which the parasites flourish.

Meng, who is pursuing a bioengineering major, is examining how bacteria that dwell in plant roots affect the plants’ susceptibility to parasites.

Meng’s project looked at the bacterial side of the coevolutionary relationship. Overseen by lab manager and technician Eunnuri Yi, Meng looked at four strains of bacteria, known as rhizobia. Two strains are nitrogen-fixing, giving their associated plants a crucial nutrient to promote growth, while the other two do not seem to contribute nitrogen to the plants, and instead exist as parasites in the plants’ roots. “I’m looking at what happens when we infect the plants with nematode parasites,” Meng says, “to see if the plants that are open to mutualistic rhizobia are more susceptible to the nematode parasites.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Linda Wu is a sophomore pursuing an uncoordinated dual degree in business, energy, environment, and sustainability in the Wharton School and in biology with a concentration in ecology and evolution in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

Nova Meng is a sophomore majoring in bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Penn.

Annenberg and Penn Bioengineering Research into Communication Citation Bias

Photo Credit: Debby Hudson / Unsplash

Women are frequently under-cited in academia, and the field of communication is no exception, according to research from the Annenberg School for Communication. The study, entitled “Gendered Citation Practices in the Field of Communication,” was published in Annals of the International Communication Association.

A new study from the Addiction, Health, & Adolescence (AHA!) Lab at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania found that men are over-cited and women are under-cited in the field of Communication. The researchers’ findings indicate that this problem is most persistent in papers authored by men.

“Despite known limitations in their use as proxies for research quality, we often turn to citations as a way to measure the impact of someone’s research,” says Professor David Lydon-Staley, “so it matters for individual researchers if one group is being consistently under-cited relative to another group. But it also matters for the field in the sense that if people are not citing women as much as men, then we’re building the field on the work of men and not the work of women. Our field should be representative of all of the excellent research that is being undertaken, and not just that of one group.”

The AHA! Lab is led by David Lydon-Staley, Assistant Professor of Communication and former postdoc in the Complex Systems lab of Danielle Bassett, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor in Bioengineering and in Electrical and Systems Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Dr. Bassett and Bassett Lab members Dale Zhou and Jennifer Stiso, graduate students in the Perelman School of Medicine, also contributed to the study.

Read “Women are Under-cited and Men are Over-cited in Communication” in Annenberg School for Communication News.

Developing Endotracheal Tubes that Release Antimicrobial Peptides

by Evan Lerner

Scanning electron microscope images of endotracheal tubes at three levels of magnification. After 24 hours of Staphylococcus epidermidis exposure, tubes coated with the researchers’ AMPs (right) showed decreased biofilm production, as compared with tubes coated with just polymer (center) and uncoated tubes (left).

Endotracheal tubes are a mainstay of hospital care, as they ensure a patient’s airway is clear when they can’t breathe on their own. However, keeping a foreign object inserted in this highly sensitive part of the anatomy comes is not without risk, such as the possibility of infection, inflammation and a condition known as subglottic stenosis, in which scar tissue narrows the airway.

Broad-spectrum antibiotics are one way to mitigate these risks, but come with risks of their own, including harming beneficial bacteria and contributing to antibiotic resistance.

With this conundrum in mind, Riccardo Gottardi, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and of Bioengineering at Penn Engineering, along with Bioengineering graduate students and lab members Matthew Aronson and Paul Gehret, are developing endotracheal tubes that can provide a more targeted antimicrobial defense.

In a proof-of-concept study published in the journal The Laryngoscope, the team showed how a different type of antimicrobial agent could be incorporated into the tubes’ polymer coating, as well as preliminary results suggesting these devices would better preserve a patient’s microbiome.

Instead, the investigators explored the use of antimicrobial peptides (AMPs), which are small proteins that destabilize bacterial membranes, causing bacterial cells to fall apart and die. This mechanism of action allows them to target specific bacteria and makes them unlikely to promote antimicrobial resistance. Prior studies have shown that it is possible to coat endotracheal tubes with conventional antibiotics, so the research team investigated the possibility of incorporating AMPs into polymer-coated tubes to inhibit bacterial growth and modulate the upper-airway microbiome.

The researchers, led by Matthew Aronson, a graduate student in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, tested their theory by creating a polymer coating that would release Lasioglossin-III, an AMP with broad-spectrum antibacterial activity. They found that Lasio released from coated endotracheal tubes, reached the expected effective concentration rapidly and continued to release at the same concentration for a week, which is the typical timeframe that an endotracheal is used before being changed. The investigators also tested their drug-eluting tube against airway microbes, including S. epidermidis, S. pneumoniae, and human microbiome samples and observed significant antibacterial activity, as well as prevention of bacterial adherence to the tube.

Read “CHOP Researchers Develop Coating for Endotracheal Tubes that Releases Antimicrobial Peptides” at CHOP News.

This post originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

Penn Bioengineering Senior Design Team Wins Hamlyn Symposium Prize

The winners of the Medical Robots for Contagious Disease Challenge Award for Best Application (L to R): Yasmina Al Ghadban, Phuong Vu, and Rob Paslaski.

Three recent Penn Bioengineering graduates took home the Best Application Award from the Medical Robotics for Contagious Disease Challenge, part of the three-month Hamlyn Symposium on Medical Robotics. Organized by the Hamlyn Centre at Imperial College, London, UK, in collaboration with the UK-RAS Network, the challenge involved “creating a 2-minute video of robotic or AI technology that could be used to tackle contagious diseases” in response to the current and potential future pandemics. Yasmina Al Ghadban, Rob Paslaski, and Phuong Vu were members of the Penn Bioengineering senior design team rUmVa who designed and built a cost-effective, autonomous robot that can quickly disinfect rooms by intelligently sanitizing high-touch surfaces and the air. The Best Application Award comes with a prize of £5,000.

The full Team rUmVa (L to R): Yasmina Al Ghadban, Rachel Madhogarhia, Phuong Vu, Jeong Inn Park, and Rob Paslaski.

Team rUmVa, which also included Bioengineering seniors Rachel Madhogarhia and Jeong Inn Park, also received a Berkman Opportunity fund grant from Penn Engineering and was one of three teams to win Penn Bioengineering’s Senior Design competition. Senior Design work is conducted every year on-site in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace (which successfully reopened for in-person activities this Spring semester). Read the full list of Spring 2021 Senior Design Award Winners here.

rUmVa and the other challenge winners were honored during the Hamlyn Symposium’s virtual closing ceremony on July 29, 2021.

Read rUmVa’s abstract and final papers, along with those of all of the Penn Bioengineering Teams’, on the BE Labs Senior Design 2021 website. rUmVa’s presentation can be viewed on Youtube:

Student Research Highlight: Colin Huber

Colin Huber, Ph.D. student

Colin Huber, a Ph.D. candidate in Bioengineering studying head impact biomechanics and concussion in sports at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP) at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), recently published “Variations in Head Impact Rates in Male and Female High School Soccer” in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise with colleagues from CHOP’s Minds Matter Concussion Frontier Program and the CIRP.

Colin’s paper, the goal of which was to compare “to compare head impact exposure rates (head impacts/exposure period) in male and female high school soccer by using multiple methodological approaches,” was recently profiled in the Penn Engineering Research & Innovation Newsletter.

Read the full story in the ADRO Newsletter.

Penn Bioengineering Graduate Shreya Parchure Receives Rose Award

Shreya Parchure (BSE/MSE 2021)

Shreya Parchure, a recent graduate of Penn Bioengineering, was selected by a committee of faculty for a 2021 Rose Award from the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (CURF). The Rose Award recognizes outstanding undergraduate research projects completed by graduating seniors under the supervision of a Penn faculty member and carries with it a $1,000 award. Parchure’s project, titled “BDNF Gene Polymorphism Predicts Response to Continuous Theta Burst Stimulation (cTBS) in Chronic Stroke Patients,” was done under the supervision of Roy H. Hamilton, Associate Professor in Neurology and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and director of the Laboratory for Cognition and Neural Stimulation in the Perelman School of Medicine. Parchure’s work in Hamilton’s lab previously resulted in a 2020 Goldwater Scholarship.

Parchure graduated in Spring 2021 with a B.S.E. in Bioengineering, with concentrations in Neuroengineering and Medical Devices and a minor in Chemistry, as well as a M.S.E. in Bioengineering. During her time as an undergraduate, she was a Rachleff Scholar, a recipient of a Vagelos Undergraduate Research Grant, and the Wolf-Hallac Award. She was active in many groups across the university and beyond, serving as a United Nations Millennium Fellow, a volunteer with Service Link and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), a CURF Research Peer Advisor, and co-editor-in-chief of the Penn Bioethics Journal. She is now pursuing a M.D./Ph.D. through the Medical Scientist Training Program at Penn Bioengineering and the Perelman School of Medicine.

With a ‘Liquid Assembly Line,’ Penn Researchers Produce mRNA-Delivering-Nanoparticles a Hundred Times Faster than Standard Microfluidic Technologies

by Evan Lerner

Michael Mitchell, Sarah Shepherd and David Issadore pose with their new device.

The COVID vaccines currently being deployed were developed with unprecedented speed, but the mRNA technology at work in some of them is an equally impressive success story. Because any desired mRNA sequence can be synthesized in massive quantities, one of the biggest hurdles in a variety of mRNA therapies is the ability to package those sequences into the lipid nanoparticles that deliver them into cells.

Now, thanks to manufacturing technology developed by bioengineers and medical researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, a hundred-fold increase in current microfluidic production rates may soon be possible.

The researchers’ advance stems from their design of a proof-of-concept microfluidic device containing 128 mixing channels working in parallel. The channels mix a precise amount of lipid and mRNA, essentially crafting individual lipid nanoparticles on a miniaturized assembly line.

This increased speed may not be the only benefit; more precisely controlling the nanoparticles’ size could make treatments more effective. The researchers tested the lipid nanoparticles produced by their device in a mouse study, showing they could deliver therapeutic RNA sequences with four-to-five times greater activity than those made by conventional methods.

The study was led by Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, and David Issadore, Associate Professor in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, along with Sarah Shepherd, a doctoral student in both of their labs. Rakan El-Mayta, a research engineer in Mitchell’s lab, and Sagar Yadavali, a postdoctoral researcher in Issadore’s lab, also contributed to the study.

They collaborated with several researchers at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine: postdoctoral researcher Mohamad-Gabriel Alameh, Lili Wang, Research Associate Professor of Medicine, James M. Wilson, Rose H. Weiss Orphan Disease Center Director’s Professor in the Department of Medicine, Claude Warzecha, a senior research investigator in Wilson’s lab, and Drew Weissman, Professor of Medicine and one of the original developers of the technology behind mRNA vaccines.

It was published in the journal Nano Letters.

“We believe that this microfluidic technology has the potential to not only play a key role in the formulation of current COVID vaccines,” says Mitchell, “but also to potentially address the immense need ahead of us as mRNA technology expands into additional classes of therapeutics.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Watch the Winners of the 2021 Senior Design Competition

by Priyanka Pardasani

Team OtoAI

Each year, Penn Engineering’s seniors present their Senior Design projects, a year-long effort that challenges them to test and develop solutions to real-world problems, to their individual departments. The top three projects from each department go on to compete in the annual Senior Design Competition, sponsored by the Engineering Alumni Society, which involves pitching projects to a panel of judges who evaluate their potential in the market. While the pandemic made this year’s competition logistically challenging, students and organizers were able to come together virtually to continue the tradition.

This year’s virtual format provided an opportunity for judges from around the country to participate in evaluating projects. Brad Richards, Director of Alumni Relations at Penn Engineering who helped plan the competition, was able to help recruit more than 60 volunteers to serve on the panel.

“The broad number of judges from varying industries made this competition incredibly meaningful, we will absolutely be integrating a virtual component to allow for more judges in the future.”

Eighteen teams total, three from each department, virtually presented to the panel of judges, who awarded $2,000 prizes in four categories.

Technology & Innovation Prize

This award recognized the team whose project represents the highest and best use of technology and innovation to leverage engineering principles.

Winner: Team OtoAI
Department: Bioengineering
Team Members: Krishna Suresh, Nikhil Maheshwari, Yash Lahoti, Jonathan Mairena, Uday Tripathi
Advisor: Steven Eliades, Assistant Professor of Otorhinolaryngology in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine
Abstract: OtoAI is a novel digital otoscope that enables primary care physicians to take images of the inner ear and leverages machine learning to diagnose abnormal ear pathologies.

Read the full list of winners and watch their videos in Penn Engineering Today.