Week in BioE (April 10, 2018)

‘Kelp’ Is on the Way!

kelp
Chondrus crispus, a common red algae from which carrageenan is extracted.

Medicine has made tremendous strides since the 1960s, as evidenced by the increased survival rates of combat soldiers since Vietnam. Nevertheless, blood loss remains the most common cause of death of soldiers on the battlefield. Finding a way for medics or soldiers to stop bleeding can significantly cut down on these deaths, but current approaches are either very expensive or not easy to use in combat.

According to a new paper published in Acta Biomaterialia, a solution to this problem could come from seaweed — or more precisely, from kappa-carrageenan, a type of polymeric carbohydrate produced by certain types of edible seaweed.  Akhilesh K. Gaharwar, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Texas A&M, led a study team who developed and tested an injectable hydrogel nanoengineered from kappa-carrageenan.

The authors combined kappa-carrageenan with clay-based nanoparticles to yield a hydrogel that can be injected into wounds. When the gel solidifies, it both stanches the flow of blood and helps to generate new tissue. The gel performed well in in vitro experiments. The next step will be to test the gel in animal models of wounds.

A New Understanding of Anatomy

A group of scientists collaborating among Mount Sinai Medical Center, NYU, Weill Cornell Medical Center, and the University of Pennsylvania, including Penn Bioengineering secondary faculty member Rebecca Wells, MD, published a paper in Scientific Reports detailing the heretofore unknown extent of the human interstitium and providing a new understanding of these fluid-filled compartments beneath the skin surface. The study used confocal laser endomicroscopy, which can examine structures at depths of 60-70 µm, to look at human hepatobiliary tissue. They found a reticular pattern of fluid-filled sinuses not detected before, which is connected to the lymph nodes and similar to structures found in other organs and organ systems.

On the basis of their findings, the authors suggest that our current understanding of the anatomy might be revised. Much more research is necessary, but they also believe that the fluid-filled spaces might play important roles in cancer metastasis and a number of other disease processes.

Bringing Bioprinting to the Masses

Three-dimensional printing is one of the great innovations of the last decade, and it has transformed numerous fields inside and outside of science. In the health sciences, the ability to manufacture 3D biomaterials holds enormous promise. Unfortunately, the costs of 3D printing remain prohibitive; the available models range between $10,000 and $200,000 in cost, not including the raw materials, software, etc.  However, engineers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) might have devised a solution. In a paper published in HardwareX, Adam Feinberg, PhD, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at CMU, and his coauthors describe their development of a syringe-pump large volume extruder (LVE).

Syringe pump extruders, which inject raw material into 3D printers, are already used to print biomaterials. However, achieving cheap, fast, and precise printing of 3D materials is a major technical challenge. The LVE, which is based on open-source hardware and software, significantly increases the size of the extruder without compromising speed, and it can print at sizes as small as 100 µm. The authors estimate that the materials necessary to build their bioprinter would cost less than $500 — orders of magnitude less than current models that are slower and unable to print using large volumes. Their source materials are online here.

People and Places

Missouri dominates this week’s news, with a new program at one institution and a symposium at another. At the University of Missouri, the College of Engineering has announced that it will begin offering an undergraduate program in biomedical engineering in the fall. Ninety miles away at Missouri University of Science and Technology,  a symposium will be held this week — the first to be convened on the topic of biomedical humanities. The event is a collaboration between Missouri S&T’s Center for Science, Technology, and Society and the Center for Biomedical Research.

Colorado State University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering is celebrating its 10th anniversary. In that time, the department has added more than 20 faculty members to its original cohort of 29.
 
Finally, we offer our congratulations to Jelena Kovačević, PhD, who has been named the new dean at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. A graduate of Columbia and the University of Belgrade, Dr. Kovačević, who is an electrical engineer with broad interest in biomedical applications, moves to NYU from CMU and is the first-ever female dean of Tandon. Congratulations Jelena!

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.

Nanoparticle Synthesis Facility Established

nanoparticle

Nanotechnology is enabling new materials and devices that work at sizes so small that individual atoms and molecules make a difference in their behavior. The field is moving so fast, however, that scientists from other disciplines can have a hard time using the fruits of this research without becoming nanotechnologists themselves.

With that kind of technology transfer in mind, the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Targeted Therapeutics and Translational Nanomedicine has established the Chemical and Nanoparticle Synthesis Core.

Supported by the Perelman School of Medicine and its Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the School of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Chemistry, this core facility aims to help Penn researchers design and synthesize custom molecules and nanoscale particles that would be otherwise hard to come by.

“Based on a short survey we conducted, we found that many faculty members want to synthesize unique chemical compounds, such as imaging agents, drugs or nanoparticles, but they don’t have the expertise to produce these compounds themselves,” says Andrew Tsourkas, professor in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering and Director of the Chemical and Nanoparticle Synthesis Core. “As a result, these projects are often abandoned.”

Read more at the Penn One Health website.

Finding Belonging: You Do Belong in Science Podcast #1

Finding Belonging

Today, we post the first of the You Do Belong in Science series of podcasts from Double Shelix. In this episode,  Dr. Tamara Alliston, PhD, Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at UCSF, discusses her journey into science and academia, and how she found belonging through peer mentorship, despite imposter syndrome. As a mentor, Tamara works to help mentees “stay connected to what gives them joy,” and they also discuss what brings Tamara joy — musculoskeletal biology and surfing with her family! Tamara stresses the importance of STEM outreach to adult audiences and shares her practical tips for “making this life work.” Finally, they dispel myths about the Pipeline Problem, and Tamara shares some data about funding disparities in orthopedic surgery. Everyone is encouraged to dig into the data to learn about funding demographics in their own field; for most of us, there’s still a long way to go. Bonus: Tamara’s qualifying exam advice!

Resources
Alliston Lab at UCSF
Musculskeletal Biology Gordon Research Conference
The importance of peer mentorship in graduate school

You do Belong in Science
* Submit your story of belonging or ask a question: e-mail doubleshelixpodcast@gmail.com or leave voicemail 415-895-0850!
* E-mail to get your Double Shelix and You Do Belong in Science stickers!
* Stay tuned for the next episode.
* Sign up for Double Shelix’s mailing list – https://goo.gl/forms/hQm1Tl0UgPLx9rKi1
* Check out their *newly redesigned* Web site – doubleshelix.com
* Follow them on Twitter @doubleshelixpod. Join the conversation with #YouDoBelongInScience and #YDBIS
* Recommended episode – Teaching for Active Learning with Penn Bioengineering’s LeAnn Dourte (Double Shelix Episode 8)

Thank you
* Berkeley Student Tech Fund
* Gustavo Villarreal, @wikirascals on Twitter, for Double Shelix’s logo
* Kaz Lewis, for their official portraits on our website — follow him on Instagram @kazlewis
* The listeners of Double Shelix, for telling your friends about our podcast and our #YouDoBelongInScience campaign

 

Week in BioE (April 2, 2018)

Beer Gets a Hand From Bioengineering

beerBeer is among the oldest beverages known to humankind. While we don’t know what the beer that the ancient Egyptians drank tasted like, there’s little question that the trend toward craft brewing over the past generation has resulted in a proliferation of brews with a range of colors and flavors. Beers with a strong flavor of hops are currently popular, resulting in high demand for the plant that bears them. Like many plants, however, the hop plant requires significant water and energy to produce, adding to the burden of global climate change.

Bioengineers from the University of California, Berkeley, might have found a solution to this problem. In an article recently published in Nature Communications, the Berkeley scientists, led by Jay D. Keasling, Ph.D., from the Department of Bioengineering, described how they engineered brewer’s yeast cells using DNA from mint, basil, and yeast to produce the terpenoid that produces the taste of hops. Taste testers found the beer made from the engineered yeast to be hoppier in flavor than two commercial beers.

The authors of the study acknowledge that a true hop flavor is likely subtler than the register of tastes they used to engineer their brewers yeast. That said, they believe their research could serve as a basis for the genetic engineering of plant products for a range of uses. In addition, the amount of saved money could be enormous — currently, the cost of growing an acre of hop plants is nearly $7,000, which is approximately 10 times that of corn.

Wearables Monitor Digestion

We may be getting a much closer look at certain aspects of digestion thanks to two wearable devices developed by engineers on two sides of the country. On the West Coast, bioengineers at the University of California, San Diego, led by Todd P. Coleman, PhD, professor in UCSD’s Department of Bioengineering,  developed a device to monitor the electrical activity of the stomach over a 24-hour period. Unlike other technologies, this approach doesn’t require the user to drink a barium solution or ingest a tiny camera. The device, which they describe in an article in Scientific Reports, consists of a series of wearable sensors based on EKG technology and an event-logging app for computers or mobile devices. In testing, the new device performed comparably to gastric manometry, a ‘gold standard’ in clinical care that requires insertion of a nasogastric tube. The authors believe their device could have use in gastric motility disorders.

Across the country at Tufts, Fiorenzo Omenetto, PhD, Frank C. Doble Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, led a team of scientists in developing a tooth-mounted sensor that can monitor food intake. The device, which measures 4 square millimeters, is described in an article in Advanced Materials. The sensor could replace the much bulkier mouthguards used for such research in the past.

Painless Lupus Testing

Despite being among the more common autoimmune disorders, lupus is difficult to diagnose. Blood tests often do not provide conclusive results. Ultimately, a kidney biopsy is often necessary to confirm the diagnosis, an invasive procedure that can be problematic with sick patients.

Now, a research team at the University of Houston has developed a saliva test that might eliminate the need for kidney biopsy. Chandra Mohan, MD, PhD, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Endowed Professor of Biomedical Engineering at UH, received an NIH grant to develop a new technology which identifies proteins in the saliva as biomarkers of lupus. An important aspect of the assay is that it can be used to monitor the disease, as well as diagnose it, so the efficacy of medication to treat the disease can be followed without having to obtain multiple kidney biopsies.

Fluid Shear Stress Affects Ovarian Cells

Like most cancers, survival rates for ovarian cancer have gone up in past decades. As with most cancers, early detection remains a key step to extending survival, but a large proportion of ovarian cancers are not diagnosed until they have metastasized to other organs. Therefore, understanding the process by which normal ovarian cells become cancerous and the mechanism underlying their metastasis could improve our ability to predict these cancers and perhaps detect them earlier.

In response to this issue, researchers at Virginia Tech have uncovered part of the mechanism by which ovarian cancer cells metastasize. Led in part by  Rafael V. Davalos, PhD, L. Preston Wade Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, the researchers report in PLOS One that fluid-induced shear stress plays a key role. Ovarian cancer causes the accumulation of fluid in the abdomen, called ascites. Using a mouse model, the study authors found that benign ovarian cells actually became malignant, and malignant cells were more likely to metastasize under this stress. This knowledge could go a long way toward developing more effective treatments for ovarian cancer.

People and Places

Two universities have announced they will begin offering degree programs in biomedical sciences. Among three programs added by Loma Linda University in California is one with an emphasis on neuroscience, systems biology, and bioengineering. Enrollment begins in the fall. In Huntington, W.V., Marshall University has added a bachelor’s degree program in BME, also beginning in the fall.

The University of North Texas, near Dallas, broke ground on a new BME building. The college anticipates the building will open for the Fall 2019 semester.

Finally, we are very proud to report that Elsie Effah Kaufmann, PhD, who earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Penn Bioengineering, was honored last week at the 44th annual meeting of the National Society of Black Engineers in Pittsburgh, where she received the 2018 Golden Torch Award for International Academic Leadership. Congratulations!

Julea Vlassakis: Podcast Interview

VlassakisIn the latest podcast from Double Shelix and produced by Penn Bioengineering, Julea Vlassakis, mentorship expert and Bioengineering PhD Candidate, joins Kayla and Sally to talk mentoring in academia and beyond. Learn how to establish productive mentor/mentee relationships and cultivate the next generation of scientists — yourself included! Beginning mentees and seasoned mentors alike will learn something new from Julea’s wisdom. Discover strategies for breaking out of the cycle of mediocre mentorship, how to deal with underperforming mentees, tips for cultivating a community of mentors within your field, and how to get a mentor to step up for your career goals. Stay tuned to the end for Julea’s list of mentor and mentee responsibilities — supported by peer-reviewed literature, of course! This is next-level mentorship.

Spoiler alert: Mentor/Mentee Responsibility Number Zero is “Establish clear goals and expectations!”

Resources:
Julea’s work in the Herr Lab at UC Berkeley
Profile of Julea’s research in honor of her winning Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening graduate fellowship
Getting Mentored in Graduate School, recommended book by Johnson and Huwe
Connect with Double Shelix on Twitter: @doubleshelixpod
Who should they interview next? Other thoughts? doubleshelixpodcast@gmail.com

Future of Technology Is Focus of Teach-in

futureAs new technologies emerge, whether related to health care, artificial intelligence, or other aspects of society, they bring with them new ethical challenges.

The topic of the future of technology was front and center on day three of the Penn Teach-in March 18-22. The series of free public events convened by the faculty senate aims to bring the academic community together with the broader community to engage in wide-ranging discussions on topics of social importance.

Among the offerings on Tuesday were two panels featuring faculty from the School of Engineering and Applied Science. The first, “The Future of Technology: Engineering Human Health,” was moderated by Kathleen Stebe and included Jennifer Phillips-CreminsDavid Issadore, and David Meaney – three faculty members in the Department of Bioengineering.

Continue reading at Penn News Today

Week in BioE (March 26, 2018)

A New Theory of Robotics?

robotic catRobots have come a long way in the past few decades, but we’re still a long way off from one that can move like animals and humans. To date, programming movement for robots uses instructions to individual mechanical parts to mimic muscle activity. The main challenge is that the number of small, coordinated muscle movements in walking requires an enormous number of instructions to program. In addition, these instructions are often not very good at accommodating for different surfaces or changing landscapes.

 

One way around this issue might be to focus less on “muscles” and more on neurons for creating the instructions of walking. This is the approach being taken in the lab of Francisco Valero-Cuevas, PhD, Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California. A recent feature at Wired magazine details their construction of a robotic cat based on a network of artificial neurons.

 

The USC model uses reinforcement learning, which is a system whereby neurons of the spinal cord form networks on the basis of trial and error, using random firing of neurons until motion is produced. In this way, the need for an algorithm or complicated programming is eliminated. The cat, called Kleo, is a long way off from being able to land on its feet or use a litter box, but it might give us insight into new technologies that will help people with disabilities from spinal cord injury or motor neuron disease.

Less Neuronal Flexibility With Learning

One of the primary tasks of the brain is learning, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about what happens in the brain as learning occurs. Much of the past research examined changes at the level of individual neurons to explain learning. Newer research, however, has indicated that it is more insightful to examine larger populations of neurons during tasks to get a deeper insight into how the brain learns.

 

Using this principle, a team of engineers and scientists collaborating between Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh submitted rhesus monkeys to a learning task and obtained neural recordings to determine how the task affected neuron populations. Their study, led by Steven Chase, PhD, and Byron Yu, PhD, both associate professors of biomedical engineering at CMU, was published in Nature Neuroscience. Drs. Matthew Golub and Penn alumnus Aaron Batista were also coauthors.

 

Contrary to previous thinking, the authors found the brain is less flexible during learning tasks. In part, this lack of flexibility explains why certain tasks take a long time to learn. The authors state that it remains unclear whether the brain changes detected occur at the level of the cortex or subcortex, so additional research will be necessary.

Preventing Bad Science

Academic science remains largely an environment of publish or perish, and this pressure on scientists has unfortunately resulted in an increased incidence of academic fraud. One form of fraud is recycling old images from past publications of successful experiments while presenting the results of newer research.

 

Recognizing that data science could be used to detect such episodes of fraud, Konrad Kording, PhD, a Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) Professor with appointments in the Departments of Bioengineering and Neuroscience, and his collaborators developed an algorithm that can compare images across journal articles and detect whether images have been repeated across two articles, even if they have been resized, rotated, or cropped. They describe their technique in a paper recently published on the BioRxiv preprint server. Among the next moves the authors are considering is licensing the algorithm to academic publishers, with the caveat that the possibility of false positive accusations has not been eliminated.

People and Places

Congratulations go to Judy Cezeaux, PhD, who has been named Dean of the Arkansas Tech University College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. A biomedical engineer with degrees from Carnegie-Mellon and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Dr. Cezeaux was most recently chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Western New England University.

Sam DeLuccia: Voices of Penn Engineering Master’s Alumni

Sam DeLuccia
Sam DeLuccia

Growing up and living in rural, upstate New York, there are a lot of things that stay off of your radar. I was always interested in science, technology, and medicine, but had very little exposure to the world of engineering until about four years ago.

As a competitive tennis player, my drive to be a college athlete steered much of my college search. Additionally, I knew that I wanted to go to a small school and to make an impact on the community, leading me to seek out liberal arts schools. I was recruited to Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS) in the Finger Lakes region of New York, and was excited to jump into the scientific community there. Though it was strong in traditional sciences, HWS did not have an engineering program. I majored in biology and was a pre-med student until I realized it was not for me. Trying my hand in molecular genetics research didn’t seem to click either, so I took a step away from science.

I loved being part of such an intimate community at HWS and wanted to give back to the school, so after I graduated I worked full-time for the admissions department and assistant-coached for men’s tennis for two years. I knew this was only temporary; I missed working in STEM!

After months of exploration, I discovered bioengineering — the perfect combination of biology, medicine, and technology. I was ready for the career switch and excited at the possibility. After applying to several schools with limited familiarity of what I was up against, University of Pennsylvania accepted me into the master’s program and I could not turn down the opportunity. Additionally, my brother was accepted into the Robotics Master’s program at the same time! As one can imagine, this was particularly exciting for my parents, as their years of love and support resulted in two of their children attending excellent programs together.

Continue reading at Penn Engineering’s Medium blog.

U.S. News Ranks Penn Bioengineering No. 4

U.S. NewsEvery year, U.S. News & World Report compiles the rankings of Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering departments across the country. Today, U.S. News revealed its rankings for 2019. Penn Bioengineering placed 4th among almost two hundred programs. Tied now with programs that include MIT, UC Berkeley, and Stanford, Penn BE is the fastest rising program in the Top 10. The department also strengthened its position as the highest ranked science and engineering program at Penn in this year’s rankings.

“It was welcome news to know that we were evaluated so highly by our peers” says David Meaney, chair of Penn BE, “I really think it is a statement of the students we attract to Penn, our educational programs, and the cutting edge research done by our faculty”.

Penn Engineering also rose in the rankings, rising one spot to #18.  Computed based on scores from peers, recruiters, and research activity, the rankings show that Penn BE lives in a healthy engineering ecosystem!