Single-cell Cancer Detection Project Wins 2021 NEMO Prize

This scProteome-seq array shows separated protein biomarkers (green and magenta spots) from thousands of single cells.

Penn Health-Tech’s Nemirovsky Engineering and Medicine Opportunity (NEMO) Prize awards $80,000 to support early-stage ideas joining engineering and medicine. The goal of the prize is to encourage collaboration between the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Engineering and Applied Science by supporting innovative ideas that might not receive funding from traditional sources.

This year, the NEMO Prize has been awarded to a team of researchers from Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering. Their project aims to develop a technology that can detect multiple cancer biomarkers in single cells from tumor biopsy samples.

As cancer cells grow in the body, one of the characteristics that influences tumor growth and response to treatment is cancer cell state heterogeneity, or differences in cell states. Methods that rapidly catalogue cell heterogeneity may be able to detect rare cells responsible for tumor growth and drug resistance.

Single-cell transcriptomics (scRNA-seq) is the standard method for studying cell states; by amplifying and analyzing the cell’s complement of RNA sequences at a given time, researchers can get a snapshot of what proteins the cell is in the process of making. However, this method does not fully capture the function of the cell. The field of proteomics, which captures the actual protein content of cells along with post-translational modifications, provides a better picture of the cell’s function, but single-cell proteomic methods with the same sensitivity as scRNA-seq do not currently exist.

Alex Hughes, Lukasz Bugaj and Andrew Tsourkas

This collaborative project, which joins Assistant Professors Alex Hughes and Lukasz Bugaj, as well as Professor Andrew Tsourkas, aims to change that by developing multiplexed, sensitive and highly specific single-cell proteomics technologies to advance our understanding of cancer, its detection and its treatment.

This new technology, called scProteome-seq, builds from Hughes’s previous work.

“My specific expertise here is as an inventor of single-cell western blotting, which is the core technology that our team is building on,” says Hughes. “Single-cell proteomics technologies of this type have a track-record of commercial translation for applications in basic science and clinical automation, so our approach has a high potential for real-world impact.”

The current technology from Hughes’ lab separates proteins in cells by their molecular weight and “blots” them on a piece of paper. Improvements to this technology included in this project will remove the limitation of using light-emitting dyes to detect different proteins and instead use DNA barcodes to differentiate them.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Penn Bioengineering’s Tsourkas Lab and Penn Start-up AlphaThera Awarded $667,000 SBIR Phase II Grant to Improve COVID-19 Detection Assays

To combat the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV2 virus, Dr. Andrew Tsourkas’s Targeted Imaging Therapeutics and Nanomedicine (Titan) Lab in Penn Bioengineering, in collaboration with the Penn-based startup, AlphaThera, was recently awarded a $667,000 SBIR Phase II Grant Extension to support its efforts in commercializing COVID-19 detection technology. The grant supports work to address the growing need for anti-viral antibody testing. Specifically, the Tsourkas Lab and AlphaThera hope to leverage their expertise with antibody conjugation technologies to reduce the steps and complexity of existing detection assays to enable greater production and higher sensitivity tests. AlphaThera was founded in 2016 by Andrew Tsourkas, PhD, Professor of Bioengineering and James Hui, MD, PhD, a graduate of the Perelman School of Medicine and Penn Bioengineering’s doctoral program.

During this pandemic it is crucial to characterize disease prevalence among populations, understand immunity, test vaccine efficacy and monitor disease resurgence. Projections have indicated that millions of daily tests will be needed to effectively control the virus spread. One important testing method is the serological assay: These tests detect the presence of SARS-CoV2 antibodies in a person’s blood produced by the body’s immune system responding to infection. Serological tests not only diagnose active infections, but also establish prior infection in an individual, which can greatly aid in forecasting disease spread and contact tracing. To perform the serological assays for antibody detection, well-established immunoassay methods are used such as ELISA.

A variety of issues have slowed the distribution of these serological assays for antibody testing. The surge in demand for testing has caused shortages in materials and reagents that are crucial for the assays. Furthermore, complexity in some of the assay formats can slow both production and affect the sensitivity of test results. Recognizing these problems, AlphaThera is leveraging its novel conjugation technology to greatly improve upon traditional assay formats.

With AlphaThera’s conjugation technology, the orientation of antibodies can be precisely controlled so that they are aligned and uniformly immobilized on assay detection plates. This is crucial as traditional serological assays often bind antibodies to plates in a non-uniform manner, which increases variability of results and reduces sensitivity. See Fig 1 below. With AlphaThera’s uniform antibody immobilization, assay specificity could increase by as much as 1000- fold for detection of a patient’s SaRS-CoV2 antibodies.

Fig 1: Uniform vs Non-Uniform Immobilized Antibodies on Surface: Top is AlphaThera improvement, showing how antibodies would be uniformly immobilized and oriented on a plate for detection. Bottom is how many traditional serological assays immobilize antibodies, resulting in variability of results and lower specificity.

Furthermore, AlphaThera is addressing the shortage of assay reagents, specifically secondary antibody reagents, by removing certain steps from traditional serological assays. Rather than relying on secondary antibodies for detection of the patient antibodies, AlphaThera’s technology can label the patient SaRS-CoV2 primary antibodies directly in serum with a detection reagent. This eliminates several processing steps, reducing the time of the assay by as much as 50%, as well as the costs.

The Tsourkas Lab and AlphaThera have initiated their COVID-19 project, expanding into the Pennovation Center and onboarding new lab staff. Other antibody labeling products have also become available and are currently being prepared for commercialization. Check out the AlphaThera website to learn more about their technology at

NIH SBIR Phase II Grant Extension— 5-R44-EB023750-03 (PI: Yu)  — 10/07/2020 – 10/07/2021