An Ecosystem of Innovation Fosters Tech-based Solutions to COVID-19 Challenges

by Erica K. Brockmeier

GRASP lab researchers (from left) Bernd Pfrommer, Kenneth Chaney, and Caio Mucchiani assembling telemedicine cart prototypes in Levine hall earlier this spring. (Image courtesy of Kenneth Chaney and Bernd Pfrommer)

Since the start of the spring, members of the Penn community have been working to combat coronavirus and its many impacts. Some people are studying COVID-19 or developing vaccines, while others are 3D-printing face shields for health care workers and delivering fall courses online.

And while innovation in health care usually brings to mind new treatments and medicines, the efforts of clinicians, engineers, and IT specialists demonstrate the importance technological infrastructure for rapidly deployable, tech-based solutions so clinicians can provide the best care to patients amid social distancing and coronavirus restrictions.

The telemedicine revolution

In late March, telemedicine was key for allowing Penn Medicine clinicians to deliver care while avoiding potentially risky in-person interactions. Chief Medical Information Officer C. William Hanson III and his team helped set up the IT infrastructure for scaling up telemedicine capabilities and provided guidance to clinicians. Thanks to the quick pivot, Penn Medicine went from 300 telemedicine visits in February to more than 7,500 visits per day in a matter of weeks.

But far from seeing telemedicine as a temporary solution during the pandemic, Hanson has been a long-time advocate for this approach to health care. In his role as liaison between clinicians and the IT community in the past 10 years Hanson, helped establish remote ICU monitoring protocols and broadened opportunities for televisits with specialists. Now, with the pandemic removing many of the previous barriers to entry, be they technical, insurance-based, or simply a lack of familiarity, Hanson believes that telemedicine is here to stay.

“As the pandemic evolved, people were aware that telemedicine could help the health care system, as well as doctors and patients, during this crisis,” he says. “Now, there are definitely places where telemedicine makes good sense, and we will continue to use that as part of our way of handling a problem.” Other benefits include removing geographic barriers to entry for new patients, reduced appointment times, increased patient satisfaction, and reduced health care provider burnout.

Simple solutions for COVID-19 challenges

As the director of Penn’s Telestroke Program, neurologist Michael Mullen has experience diagnosing from a distance. This spring, telemedicine carts his group uses were repurposed in COVID ICUs. At the same time, Mullen and group wanted to expand their ability to assess stroke patients remotely, so he reached out to Brian Litt, faculty director of Penn Health-Tech, to see how he could collaborate to create an analogous telemedicine station using readily available, cost-effective components.

Rapid and simple solutions are at the heart of Penn’s ModLab, a subgroup of the GRASP lab focused on robots made of configurable individual components. As part of a COVID-19 rapid response initiative, engineers worked with Mullen to figure out a viable solution in record time. “The idea was to make it as simple and as fast as possible,” says graduate student Caio Mucchiani. “With robotics, usually you want to make things more sophisticated, however, given the situation, we needed to know how we could use off-the-shelf components to make something.”

Fellow graduate student Ken Chaney, postdoc Bernd Pfrommer, and Mucchiani came up with a plan that replicated the required specs of the existing telemedicine carts, including state-of-the-art cameras for detailed imaging as well as a reliable, easily rechargeable battery. The team then put together 10 telemedicine carts, assembling the prototypes with social distancing and masks at the GRASP lab in early April.

While changes to treatment approaches mean that these carts still require additional field testing, Mullen is still eager to expand the program, be it for diagnosing patients safely or educating medical students in an era of social distancing. “In the setting of COVID, when everything was getting crazy, it was remarkable to see the energy that GRASP brought to help,” adds Mullen. “Everyone was really busy, and it was amazing to see this group of people who wanted to use their expertise to help.”

Continue reading at Penn Today.

NB: Brian Litt is Professor in Neurology and Bioengineering.

BE Seminar Series: October 3rd with Jens Herberholz, Ph.D.

The Bioengineering Department seminar series kicks off for the fall semester in one week. We hope to see you there!

Jens Herberholz, Ph.D.

Speaker: Jens Herberholz, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Cognitive Science Graduate Program
Co-Director, Brain and Behavior Initiative (BBI)
University of Maryland College Park

Date: Thursday, October 3, 2019
Time: 12:00-1:30 pm
Location: Room 337, Towne Building

 

Title: “Developing Neuroengineering Solutions of Biomedical Relevance Using Crayfish as a Model System”

Abstract:

In my talk, I will first describe one of the main projects in my lab that investigates the underlying cellular-molecular mechanisms for changes in alcohol sensitivity of crayfish with different prior social experiences. In this context, I will explain why “simple” invertebrates may provide unique advantages for studying complex phenomena such as socially-dependent drug effects. Crayfish are inexpensive and easily maintained in the laboratory, and they have an accessible nervous system with large, identified neurons that link directly to behavior and can sustain many hours of experimental study. This allows for high precision and reproducibility and makes crayfish a suitable model not just for investigating neurobehavioral questions, but for developing and improving biomedical devices and tools. In the second part of my talk, I will illustrate two projects that are currently ongoing in collaboration with engineering colleagues at UMD. The first one aims to develop nanoparticles that wirelessly activate and record neural activity patterns using microwave signals. Preliminary data using individual neurons of the ex vivo crayfish nerve cord revealed that single action potentials can be robustly recorded by activating microwave signals in a nanoscale magnetic tunnel junction. The future goal of this project is to develop this technique for non-invasive monitoring and modulating of activity in brains of higher complexity. The second project interfaces the crayfish ex vivo ventral nerve cord and innervated hindgut with a multi-sensor 3D printed platform that contains cultured human gut cells and interchangeable colonies of microbiota. The physiological responses to serotonin release from cell cultures will be measured and quantified in crayfish neurons of the central and enteric nervous system and on corresponding hindgut motility with intracellular electrophysiology and motion tracking. The long-term goal is to develop a real-time, high-throughput discovery platform that allows detailed investigation of the cellular processes underlying the gut-brain axis.

Bio:

Dr. Jens Herberholz is an Associate Professor in the Psychology Department and the Director of the Neuroscience and Cognitive Science Program, an interdisciplinary, multi-departmental research and graduate training program at the University of Maryland, College Park. Dr. Herberholz received his PhD from the Technical University in Munich, Germany. His PhD work investigated the importance of mechanosensory signals during aggressive interactions in snapping shrimp. Following his PhD. he was a Postdoctoral Associate and Research Scientist at Georgia State University where he combined single-cell electrophysiology with behavioral analysis to study the neurobehavioral underpinnings of escape in crayfish. In his own laboratory, he continues to use crayfish as a primary animal model for research. Crayfish make complex behavioral decisions, and they feature an accessible nervous system with large, identifiable neurons, which allows for cellular and circuit-level analysis using neurophysiological, neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neuroimaging techniques. His current research program focuses on identifying the structure and function of decision-making neural circuitry and understanding the interconnections between neural activity patterns and motor action in the context of aggression and predator avoidance. His most recent work addresses fundamental questions regarding the role of neurochemical inhibition, including the interplay between the neurocellular effects of alcohol and behavioral disinhibition, with the long-term goal of identifying how nervous system function is linked to adaptive and maladaptive behavioral output. Dr. Herberholz has published many peer-reviewed articles and conference abstracts as well as several book chapters on these topics; his research has been supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and featured by various media outlets. He is an Associate Editor for the journal “Behaviour”.

César de la Fuente Named Penn Presidential Professor

Cesar de la Fuente-Nunez, PhD

César de la Fuente, assistant professor in the Perelman School of Medicine and in Department of Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, has been awarded a Presidential Professorship by University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann. Presidential Professorships, which have terms lasting five years, are awarded to outstanding scholars who, according to the award announcement, “demonstrably contribute excellence and diversity to Penn’s inclusive community.”

De la Fuente is a synthetic biologist who incorporates a computational approach into his work, attempting to engineer biological systems that can transform medical tools and therapies. His lab studies naturally occurring proteins and uses their discoveries to design artificial antibiotics and living medicines.

De la Fuente has also been named one of MIT Technology Review’s “35 Innovators Under 35” and one of GEN’s “Top 10 Under 40” for his pioneering work on engineered medicines.

Read the Presidential Professorship award announcement at Penn Medicine, and learn more about de la Fuente’s research on his lab website.

Originally published on the Penn Engineering Medium blog.

APOC in Ghana: May 25th

In this series of posts, University of Pennsylvania students who took the spring 2019 APOC (Appropriate Point of Care Diagnostics) course write about their experience traveling to Ghana in May-June 2019.

by Aime Bienfait Igiraneza (Computer Science, ’20)

We started the morning at the Golden Tulip Hotel. tThere we meet a group of civil engineers from KNUST (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology). Once we were all together we sat down to enjoy some traditional west African breakfast foods like Hausa Koko, a spicy porridge.

After breakfast was finished we left the hotel for the market. At the market the KNUST students were nice enough to show us around while we looked for Kente cloth. The brightly-colored and intricately designed Kente was purchased so that it can be made into clothing for us to wear when we meet the Ashanti king.

Once we were finished at the market we all boarded the bus to spend the rest of the day at the lake. The lake we traveled to, Lake Bosumtwi, the only natural lake in Ghana, sits within an ancient impact crater. A little outside the city Kumasi the lake served as a nice break from the busy city. At the lake we enjoyed more food, games, and a beautiful view to end the day.

APOC in Ghana 2019: May 24th

In this series of posts, University of Pennsylvania students who took the spring 2019 APOC (Appropriate Point of Care Diagnostics) course write about their experience traveling to Ghana in May-June 2019.

Suntreso Hospital

We started off our day with another visit to Suntreso Hospital to observe the treatment and handling of their HIV/AIDS patients. We spoke to the resident pharmacist who showed us the different types of ARV’s the hospital keeps in stock. We also met with an HIV/AIDS treatment counselor who allowed some of us to observe a counseling session with a newly diagnosed patient after receiving their consent.

We found that many patients suffering from communicable diseases often go undiagnosed and untreated for extended periods of time. This is due to the effort it takes to make a hospital visit in addition to the lack or underdevelopment of referral systems for patients found to be exhibiting symptoms of other ailments after screening. We learned that patients also tend to commute large distances from other regions to seek treatment in areas where they are less likely to be recognized by friends, family or co-workers. We learned that this is usually done to avoid the implications of stigma surrounding many diseases, especially HIV/AIDS.

Ghana National Cultural Museum

We then went to the Ghana National Cultural Museum where we were introduced to just a few of the many facets of Ghanaian culture that we had time for. We were told what each of our day names meant and learned about a host of traditional practices and items such as the talking drum, traditional dress, and stories about the fight against colonial rule. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed inside the museum.

After a day inspired by Ghanaian culture we stopped for a meal at Ike’s Café. This restaurant is near the museum and we very quickly found ourselves enjoying a night full of Ghanaian delicacies to match the history we’d learned about as well as some breathtaking live music. We shared a host of local dishes which included fufu, banku, jollof, plantain, rice balls, and more.

Princess & Dr. David Issadore enjoying one of his favorite meals – fufu

The live band gave us a shout-out midway through their performance. A particular saxophonist managed to capture the attention of some of our team members. All-in-all we had an educational and relaxing day.

Heilmeier Lecture by Burdick Tomorrow

Heilmeier
Jason Burdick, Ph.D.

Jason Burdick, Professor in Bioengineering, will give the annual Heilmeier lecture tomorrow — Tuesday, April 10, 2018 — after having been been named the recipient of the 2017–18 George H. Heilmeier Faculty Award for Excellence in Research for “pioneering contributions to designing and developing polymers for applications in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine.”

The Heilmeier Award honors a Penn Engineering faculty member whose work is scientifically meritorious and has high technological impact and visibility. It is named for George H. Heilmeier, a Penn Engineering alumnus and overseer whose technological contributions include the development of liquid crystal displays and whose honors include the National Medal of Science and Kyoto Prize.

Burdick’s research interests include developing degradable polymeric biomaterials that can be used for tissue engineering, drug delivery, and fundamental polymer studies. The platform polymer technology involves the development of modified biopolymers that react or assemble into networks and are processed using techniques such as photopatterning, electrospinning, and 3D printing. Specific targets of his research include: scaffolding for cell and growth factor delivery in the regeneration of musculoskeletal tissues; controlling stem cell differentiation through material cues; and injectable hydrogels for the repair of cardiac tissue.

To learn more about Burdick and his research, visit his faculty research profile.