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 Dental, Penn Engineering Unite to Form Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry

by Beth Adams

With the shared vision to transform the future of oral health care, Penn Dental Medicine and Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have united to form the Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry (CiPD). The new Center marked its official launch on January 22 with a virtual program celebrating the goals and plans of this unique partnership. Along with the Deans from both schools, the event gathered partners from throughout the University of Pennsylvania and invited guests, including the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research Director (NIDCR) Dr. Rena D’Souza and IADR Executive Director Chris Fox.

Conceived and brought to fruition by co-directors Dr. Michel Koo of Penn Dental Medicine and Dr. Kathleen Stebe of Penn Engineering, the CiPD is bridging the two schools through cutting-edge research and technologies to accelerate the development of new solutions and devices to address unmet needs in oral health, particularly in the areas of dental caries, periodontal disease, and head and neck cancer. The CiPD will also place a high priority on programs to train the next generation of leaders in oral health care innovation.

“We have a tremendous global health challenge. Oral diseases and craniofacial disorders affect 3.5 billion people, disproportionately affecting the poor and the medically and physically compromised,” says Dr. Koo, Professor in the Department of Orthodontics and Divisions of Community Oral Health and Pediatric Dentistry, in describing their motivation to form the Center. “There is an urgent need to find better ways to diagnose, prevent, and treat these conditions, particularly in ways that are affordable and accessible for the most susceptible populations. That is our driving force for putting this Center together.”

“We have united our schools around this mission,” adds Dr. Stebe, Richer & Elizabeth Goodwin Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “We have formed a community of scholars to develop and harness new engineering paradigms, to generate new knowledge, and to seek new approaches that are more effective, precise, and affordable to address oral health. More importantly, we will train a new community of scholars to impact this space.”

Born through Interdisciplinary Research

A serendipitous connection born through Penn’s interdisciplinary research environment itself brought Drs. Koo and Stebe together more than five years ago, an introduction that would eventually lead to creating the CiPD.

Dr. Tagbo Niepa, now assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, came to Penn Engineering in 2014 as part of Penn’s Postdoctoral Fellowship for Academic Diversity, an initiative from the office of the Vice Provost for Research. His studies on the microbiome led him to reach out to Dr. Stebe and Dr. Daeyeon Lee (also at Penn Engineering), and to connect them to Dr. Koo, initiating collaboration between their labs.

“Tagbo embodies what we are trying to do with the CiPD,” recalls Dr. Stebe. “He had initiative, he identified new tools and important context, and he did good science that may help us understand how to interrupt the disease process and identify new underlying mechanisms that can inspire new therapies.” Dr. Niepa worked on applying microfluidics and engineering to study the oral microbiome and better understand how the interactions between fungi and bacteria could impact dental caries.

“Upon meeting Michel, we became excited about the possibilities of bringing talent from the two schools together,” notes Dr. Stebe. A 2018 workshop organized by Drs. Koo and Stebe and funded by Penn’s Vice Provost of Research explored the potential for expanding cross-school research. “We invited researchers from dental medicine and engineering as well as relevant people from the arts and sciences to see if we could find a way to collaborate to advance oral and craniofacial health,” says Dr. Koo. “That was the catalyst for the Center; after the workshop, we put together a task force which would become the core members of the CiPD.”

In addition to Drs. Koo and Stebe, the CiPD Executive Committee includes Associate Directors Dr. Henry Daniell, Vice-Chair and W.D. Miller Professor, Department of Basic & Translational Sciences, Penn Dental Medicine, and Dr. Anh Le, Chair and Norman Vine Endowed Professor of Oral Rehabilitation, Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery / Pharmacology, Penn Dental Medicine; as well as Dr. Andrew Tsourkas, Professor, Department of Bioengineering, Co-Director, Center for Targeted Therapeutics & Translational Nanomedicine (CT3N) and Chemical and Nanoparticle Synthesis Core, Penn Engineering; and Dr. Jason Moore, Edward Rose Professor of Informatics, Director of the Penn Institute for Biomedical Informatics. The core members of CiPD include 26 faculty from across both Penn Dental Medicine and Penn Engineering, and also from the Schools of Medicine and Arts & Sciences.

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Bioengineering Faculty Contribute to New Treatment That “Halts Osteoarthritis-Like Knee Cartilage Degeneration”

A recent study published in Science Translational Medicine announces a discovery which could halt cartilage degeneration caused by osteoarthritis: “These researchers showed that they could target a specific protein pathway in mice, put it into overdrive and halt cartilage degeneration over time. Building on that finding, they were able to show that treating mice with surgery-induced knee cartilage degeneration through the same pathway via the state of the art of nanomedicine could dramatically reduce the cartilage degeneration and knee pain.” This development could eventually lead to treating osteoarthritis with injection rather than more complicated surgery.

Among a team of Penn Engineering and Penn Medicine researchers, the study was co-written by Zhiliang Cheng, Research Associate Professor in Bioengineering, Andrew Tsourkas, Professor in Bioengineering, and Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor in Bioengineering and Orthopaedic Surgery. The lead author was Yulong Wei of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory.

Read the press release in Penn Medicine News.

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 https://www.alphathera.com.

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

Penn Engineers Devise Easier Way of Sneaking Antibodies into Cells

Getting a complex protein like an antibody through the membrane of a cell without damaging either is a long-standing challenge in the life sciences. Penn Engineers have found a plug-and-play solution that makes antibodies compatible with the delivery vehicles commonly used to ferry nucleic acids across that barrier.

For almost any conceivable protein, corresponding antibodies can be developed to block it from binding or changing shape, which ultimately prevents it from carrying out its normal function. As such, scientists have looked to antibodies as a way of shutting down proteins inside cells for decades, but there is still no consistent way to get them past the cell membrane in meaningful numbers.

Now, Penn Engineering researchers have figured out a way for antibodies to hitch a ride with transfection agents, positively charged bubbles of fat that biologists routinely use to transport DNA and RNA into cells. These delivery vehicles only accept cargo with a highly negative charge, a quality that nucleic acids have but antibodies lack. By designing a negatively charged amino acid chain that can be attached to any antibody without disrupting its function, they have made antibodies broadly compatible with common transfection agents.

Beyond the technique’s usefulness towards studying intracellular dynamics, the researchers conducted functional experiments with antibodies that highlight the technique’s potential for therapeutic applications. One antibody blocked a protein that decreases the efficacy of certain drugs by prematurely ejecting them from cells. Another blocked a protein involved in the transcription process, which could be an even more fundamental way of knocking out proteins with unwanted effects.

Andrew Tsourkas and Hejia Henry Wang

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted by Andrew Tsourkas, professor in the Department of Bioengineering, and Hejia Henry Wang, a graduate student in his lab.

Read the full story at the Penn Engineering Medium Blog. Media contact Evan Lerner.

Lee Bassett and Andrew Tsourkas Awarded Grainger Foundation Grant for Interdisciplinary Research

Lee Bassett and Andrew Tsourkas

By Lauren Salig

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) has awarded two Penn Engineers with The Grainger Foundation Frontiers of Engineering Grant for Advancement of Interdisciplinary Research. Lee Bassett, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering, and Andrew Tsourkas, professor and undergraduate chair in the Department of Bioengineering, will be using the $30,000 award to kick-start their research collaboration.

The NAE describes the Frontiers of Engineering program as one that “brings together outstanding early-career engineers from industry, academia, and government to discuss pioneering technical work and leading-edge research in various engineering fields and industry sectors. The goal is to facilitate interactions and exchange of techniques and approaches across fields and facilitate networking among the next generation of engineering leaders.”

Bassett and Tsourkas fit the grant’s description, as their proposed research requires them to combine their different areas of expertise to push the state of the art in engineering. The pair plans to engineer a new class of nanoparticles that can sense and differentially react to particular chemicals in their biochemical environment. This new class of nanoparticles could allow scientists to better study cellular processes and could eventually have important applications in medicine, potentially allowing for more personalized diagnoses and targeted treatment of disease.

To design and create this type of nanoparticle is no small task. The research demands Bassett’s background in engineering quantum-mechanical systems for use as environmental sensors, and Tsourkas’ ability to apply these properties to nanoscale “theranostic” agents, which are designed to target treatments based on a patient’s specific diagnostic test results.

By combining forces, Bassett and Tsourkas hope to introduce a new nanoparticle tool into their fields and to connect even more people in their different areas to promote future interdisciplinary work.

Originally posted on the Penn Engineering Medium Blog.

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.

Bioengineers Get Support to Study Chronic Pain

chronic pain
Zhiliang Cheng, Ph.D.

Zhiliang Cheng, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, has received an R01 grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to study chronic pain. The grant, which provides nearly $1.7 million over the next five years, will support the work of Dr. Cheng, Bioengineering Professor Andrew Tsourkas, and Vice Provost for Education and Professor Beth Winkelstein, in developing a novel nanotechnology platform for greater effectiveness in radiculopathy treatment.

Based on the idea that phospholipase-A2 (PLA2) enzymes, which modulate inflammation, play an important role in pain due to nerve damage, the group’s research seeks to develop PLA2-responsive multifunctional nanoparticles (PRMNs) that could both deliver anti-inflammatory drugs and magnetic resonance contrast agents to sites of pain so that the molecular mechanisms at work in producing chronic pain can be imaged, as well as allowing for the closer monitoring of treatment.

This research builds on previous findings by Drs. Cheng, Tsourkas, and Winkelstein. In a 2011 paper, Drs. Tsourkas and Winkelstein used superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles to enhance magnetic resonance imaging of neurological injury in a rat model. Based on the theory of reactive oxygen species playing a role in pain following neural trauma, a subsequent paper published in July with Sonia Kartha as first author and Dr. Cheng as a coauthor found that a type of nanoparticle called polymersomes could be used to deploy superoxide dismutase, an antioxidant, to sites of neuropathic pain. The current grant-supported study combines the technologies developed in the previous studies.

“To the best of our knowledge, no studies have sought to combine and/or leverage this aspect of the inflammatory and PLA2 response for developing effective pain treatment. We hypothesize that this theranostic agent, which integrates both diagnostic and therapeutic functions into a single system, offers a unique opportunity and tremendous potential for monitoring and treating patients with direct, clinically translational impact,” Dr. Cheng said.

Tsourkas Joint Venture Featured in “Inquirer”

Tsourkas
Andrew Tsourkas, Ph.D.

Andrew Tsourkas, Ph.D., who is an associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering, cofounded PolyAurum LLC, a company using gold particles to develop technologies to improve cancer therapies, in 2015. Dr. Tsourkas founded the company with two faculty members from the Perelman School of Medicine: Jay Dorsey, M.D., Ph.D., and Dave Cormode, Ph.D., the latter of whom is also a secondary factory member in BE. The name PolyAurum combines the word polymer with aurum, the Latin word for “gold.” Gold has been found to be able to enhance the effects of radiation therapy in cancer without damaging healthy tissue.

Dr. Tsourkas’s work with his colleagues at PolyAurum was featured recently in the The Philadelphia Inquirer. Debra Travers, the CEO of PolyAurum and herself a cancer survivor, was interviewed by the newspaper for its business section.

According to the article, Drs. Tsourkas and Cormode

have worked to make gold more biocompatible, resulting in PolyAurum’s current technology, Dorsey said. The gold nanocrystals are contained in a biodegradable polymer that allows enough metal to collect in a tumor. The polymer then breaks down, releasing the gold for excretion from the body so that it does not build up in key organs.

Read more at the Inquirer Web site.