2022 Career Award Recipient: Michael Mitchell

by Melissa Pappas

Michael Mitchell (Illustration by Melissa Pappas)

Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering, is one of this year’s recipients of the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award. The award is given to early-career faculty researchers who demonstrate the potential to be role models in their field and invest in the outreach and education of their work.

Mitchell’s award will fund research on techniques for “immunoengineering” macrophages. By providing new instructions to these cells via nanoparticles laden with mRNA and DNA sequences, the immune system could be trained to target and eliminate solid tumors. The award will also support graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in his lab over the next five years.

The project aligns with Mitchell’s larger research goals and the current explosion of interest in therapies that use mRNA, thanks to the technological breakthroughs that enabled the development of COVID-19 vaccines.

“The development of the COVID vaccine using mRNA has opened doors for other cell therapies,” says Mitchell. “The high-priority area of research that we are focusing on is oncological therapies, and there are multiple applications for mRNA engineering in the fight against cancer.”

A new wave of remarkably effective cancer treatments incorporates chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy. There, a patient’s T-cells, a type of white blood cell that fights infections, are genetically engineered to identify, target and kill individual cancer cells that accumulate in the circulatory system.

However, despite CART-T therapy’s success in treating certain blood cancers, the approach is not effective against cancers that form solid tumors. Because T-cells are not able to penetrate tumors’ fibrous barriers, Mitchell and his colleagues have turned to another part of the immune system for help.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Penn Medicine CAR T Therapy Expert Carl June Receives 2022 Keio Medical Science Prize

by Brandon Lausch

The award from Japan’s oldest private university honors outstanding contributions to medicine and life sciences.

Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy Carl June.

Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, has been named a 2022 Keio Medical Science Prize Laureate. He is recognized for his pioneering role in the development of CAR T cell therapy for cancer, which uses modified versions of patients’ own immune cells to attack their cancer.

The Keio Medical Science Prize is an annual award endowed by Keio University, Japan’s oldest private university, which recognizes researchers who have made an outstanding contribution to the fields of medicine or the life sciences. It is the only prize of its kind awarded by a Japanese university, and eight laureates of this prize have later won the Nobel Prize. Now in its 27th year, the prize encourages the expansion of researcher networks throughout the world and contributes to the well-being of humankind.

“Dr. June exemplifies the spirit of curiosity and fortitude that make Penn home to so many ‘firsts’ in science and medicine,” said Penn President Liz Magill. “His work provides hope to cancer patients and their families across the world, and inspiration to our global community of physicians and scientists who are working to develop the next generation of treatments and cures for diseases of all kinds.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

June is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. Read more stories featuring June’s research here.

2022 CAREER Award Recipient: Lukasz Bugaj

by Melissa Pappas

Lukasz Bugaj (illustration by Melissa Pappas)

Therapies that use engineered cells to treat diseases, infections and chronic illnesses are opening doors to solutions for longstanding medical challenges. Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, has been awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for research that may be key to opening some of those doors.

Such cellular therapies take advantage of the complex molecular mechanisms that cells naturally use to interact with one another, enabling them to be more precise and less toxic than traditional pharmaceutical drugs, which are based on simpler small molecules. Cellular therapies that use engineered immune system cells, for example, have recently been shown to be highly successful in treating certain cancers and protecting against viral infections.

However, there is still a need to further fine-tune the behavior of cells in these targeted therapies. Bugaj and colleagues are addressing that need by developing new ways to communicate with engineered cells once they are in the body, such as turning molecular events on and off at specific times.

The research team recently discovered that both temperature and light can act as triggers of a specific fungal protein, dynamically controlling its location within a mammalian cell. By using light or temperature to instruct that protein to migrate toward or away from the cell’s membrane, Bugaj and his colleagues showed how it could serve as a key component in controlling the behavior of human cells.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

ToxiSense Wins 2022 Venture Lab Startup Challenge

(From left to right) Startup Challenge sponsor Eric Aroesty with members of Toxisense: Aravind Krishnan, Udit Garg, Andrew Diep-Tran, and Aarush Sahni. (Image: The Wharton School)

Penn’s Venture Lab Startup Challenge awarded its 2022 prize to a sustainable and cost-effective water-testing startup. The venture, ToxiSense, was awarded at a ceremony on April 29, at Tangen Hall, Penn’s hub for student entrepreneurship and innovation.

Co-founded by four first-year students—Aravind Krishnan, Udit Garg, Andrew Diep-Tran, and Aarush Sahni—ToxiSense aims to improve the endotoxin testing required for drinking water and biopharma products through genetically engineering plants with bioluminescent properties. Biopharmaceutical products and drinking water must be tested for endotoxins, the sickness-causing molecule from bacteria. The current method relies on expensive horseshoe crab blood and is environmentally damaging. ToxiSense genetically engineered the Arabidopsis plant to luminesce based on the endotoxin concentration applied to it, serving as a sustainable, cost-effective solution.

ToxiSense was selected from a field of eight finalist teams—including DeToXyFi, Groov, Impact Local, Miren, Nemu, Ossum Technologies, and Shinkei Systems Corp.—who advanced from 30 ventures during the semi-finals portion of the competition, which consisted of a day of virtual pitching and Q&A in front of alumni entrepreneur and investor panels. For the finals, teams pitched to a panel of alumni judges and in front of a live audience of nearly 200 attendees as they competed for over $150,000 in cash and prizes to launch their startups.

“The Startup Challenge is Venture Lab’s premier yearly event, showcasing Penn’s most promising teams of student entrepreneurs,” says Lori Rosenkopf, vice dean of entrepreneurship and Simon and Midge Palley Professor at the Wharton School. “This year’s finalists included undergraduate and graduate students from across the University, and their products offered solutions for environmental, financial, health, and social challenges. These motivated teams capture the spirit of Penn entrepreneurship—innovative, interdisciplinary, inclusive—and we offer our congratulations and our optimistic wishes for their futures.”

Read more at The Wharton School.

Udit Garg (Class of 2025) is a rising second year student in Bioengineering.

Some work for this project was done in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace, the primary teaching lab for the Department of Bioengineering.

Ossum Technologies includes Ananya Dewan, Hoang Le, Shiva Teerdhala, all students in the Vagelos Life Sciences and Management Program, Bioengineering major Karan Shah and Savan Patel, a student in the Jerome Fisher Program for Management & Technology.

Erin Anderson Wins Penn Prize for Excellence in Teaching by Graduate Students

Erin Anderson, PhD student

The Office of the Provost awards the Penn Prize for Excellence in Teaching by Graduate Students in recognition of their profound impact on education across the University. Nominations come directly from undergraduate and graduate students in their courses and are narrowed down to ten awardees each year.

Erin Anderson, a graduate student in the Department of Bioengineering, is one of the ten 2022 recipients.

Anderson is a Ph.D. student who studies the computational modeling of injury in full-brain networks in the Molecular Neuroengineering Lab of David Meaney, Solomon R. Pollack Professor in Bioengineering and Senior Associate Dean of Penn Engineering. Anderson has served as a teaching assistant for Bioengineering Senior Design since Fall 2019.  Senior Design (BE 495 & 496) is the Bioengineering Department’s two-semester capstone course in which students work in teams to conceive, design and pitch their final projects, and is taught by Meaney and Sevile Mannickarottu, Director of Educational Laboratories in Bioengineering.  Anderson earned her B.S. in Bioengineering from Rice University in 2016. Her doctoral thesis focuses on how subconcussive head trauma affects subsequent concussion outcomes.

Spencer Haws Receives Druckenmiller Fellowship

Spencer Haws, Ph.D.

Spencer Haws, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the laboratory of Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins, Associate Professor and Dean’s Faculty Fellow in Bioengineering and in Genetics, was awarded a 2022 Druckenmiller Fellowship from the New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute (NYSCF). This prestigious program is the largest dedicated stem cell fellowship program in the world and was developed to train and support young scientists working on groundbreaking research in the field of stem cell research. Haws is one of only five inductees into the 2022 class of fellows.

Haws earned his Ph.D. in Nutritional Sciences in 2021 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied metabolism-chromatin connections under the mentorship of John Denu, Professor in Biomolecular Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a NYSCF – Druckenmiller Fellow in the Cremins Laboratory for Genome Architecture and Spatial Neurobiology, Haws is using this previously developed expertise to frame his investigations into the underlying mechanisms driving the neurodegenerative disorder fragile X syndrome (FXS). “Ultimately, I hope that this work will help guide the development of future FXS-specific therapeutics of which none currently exist,” says Haws.

Read the full list of 2022 Druckenmiller Fellows and view introductory videos on the NYSCF website.

Kevin Johnson Named AIMBE Fellow

Kevin B. Johnson, MD, MS

Kevin B. Johnson, David L. Cohen University Professor in Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Informatics and in Computer and Information Science, has been elected to the 2022 Class of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) Fellows. Johnson joined the Penn faculty in 2021. He also holds secondary appointments in Bioengineering, in Pediatrics, and in the Annenberg School for Communication, and is the Vice President for Applied Informatics for the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

Election to the AIMBE College of Fellows is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to a medical and biological engineer. College membership honors those who have made outstanding contributions to “engineering and medicine research, practice, or education” and to “the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of medical and biological engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to bioengineering education.”

Johnson was nominated, reviewed, and elected by peers and members of the AIMBE College of Fellows for his pioneering discoveries in clinical informatics, leading to advances in data acquisition, medication management, and information aggregation in medical settings.

A formal induction ceremony was held during AIMBE’s 2022 Annual Event on March 25, 2022. Johnson was inducted along with 152 colleagues who make up the AIMBE Fellow Class of 2022. For more information about the AIMBE Annual Event, please visit www.aimbe.org.

Read Johnson’s AIMBE election press release here. Find the full list of 2022 Fellows here.

Bioengineering Graduate Student Hannah Zlotnick Named Schmidt Science Fellow

by Evan Lerner

Hannah Zlotnick

Hannah Zlotnick, a graduate student in the Department of Bioengineering and a member of the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, has been named a Schmidt Science Fellow.

She joins 28 early-career scientists from around the world in this year’s cohort, with each receiving support for one to two years, $100,000 in salary support per year, individualized mentoring, and a series of professional development sessions as they pivot to the next stages of their research agendas.

The fellowship is a program of Schmidt Futures, the philanthropic initiative of Eric and Wendy Schmidt that aims to tackle society’s toughest challenges by supporting interdisciplinary researchers at the start of their careers.

“Our latest group of Schmidt Science Fellows embodies our vision for this Program at its inception five years ago,” says Eric Schmidt, co-founder of Schmidt Futures and former CEO and Chairman of Google. “We find the most talented next-generation leaders from around the world and back these impressive young adults with the resources and networks they need to realize their full potential while addressing some of the big scientific questions facing the world. Congratulations to the 2022 Schmidt Science Fellows, I am excited to see where your science takes you and what you will achieve.”

Working at the intersection of materials science, biology, and applied clinical research, Zlotnick’s postdoctoral work will involve developing advanced bioprinting techniques for regenerative medicine. Such advances are necessary to recreate the multi-cellular composition of orthopedic tissues, such as those found in the knee joint. Lab-grown tissue models can then be used to broaden our understanding of how degenerative diseases progress after injury, limit the need for animal models, and serve as a platform for therapeutic discovery.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Celebrating the Newest President’s Engagement, Innovation, and Sustainability Prize Winners

by Lauren Hertzler

The 2022 cohort of PEP, PIP, and PSP winners smile for a photo with Interim President Wendell Pritchett and Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein.

Last week, on a sunny spring day, the 2022 President’s Engagement, Innovation, and Sustainability Prize winners were recognized at a special luncheon, a momentous occasion that hasn’t taken place in-person since 2019. The 12 Prize recipients and their advisers, as well as past Prize winners and Penn leadership, joined together at the University Meeting and Guest House for a meal, good conversation, and celebration.

To the group, as well as family members tuning in through Zoom, Interim President Wendell Pritchett described this year’s winners as exemplifying creativity and leadership. “They epitomize why these prizes are central to the vision we share for Penn,” he said, before distributing handcrafted certificates to each of the six teams.

Eli Moraru, who earned one of the inaugural President’s Sustainability Prizes for his nonprofit The Community Grocer, said the event was uplifting for two main reasons: The first being that he got to network with his fellow PEP/PIP/PSP cohort, and the second being his connection with past Prize winners.

“It’s a real community,” Moraru said, sharing, as an example, how Christina Miranda from Be Body Positive Philly—a winner in the 2021 cohort—approached him expressing her interest in serving as a resource to his team in any way possible.

“It’s just one more reason showcasing how we aren’t alone in this,” Moraru said.

Chosen from an applicant pool of 71 people, the two other President’s Sustainability Prize-winning teams include Saif Khawaja for Shinkei Systems and Sarah Beth Gleeson, Shoshana Weintraub, and Julia Yan for EcoSPIN. Earning a President’s Innovation Prize, which was founded in 2016, is William Kohler Danon and Lukas Achilles Yancopoulos for Grapevine. In 2015, the very first President’s Engagement Prizes were announced. This year, Penn awarded this honor to two teams: Seungkwon Son, Max Strickberger, and Sam Strickberger for College Green Ventures and Manoj Simha and Rowana Miller from Cosmic Writers. Each team receives $100,000 to help get their projects off the ground, plus a $50,000 living stipend post-graduation per person.

Continue reading at Penn Today.

César de la Fuente Receives 2022 RSEQ Young Investigator Award

César de la Fuente, PhD

César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Psychiatry, Bioengineering, Microbiology, and in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering has been honored with a 2022 Young Investigator Award by the Royal Spanish Society of Chemistry (RSEQ) for his pioneering research efforts to combine the power of machines and biology to help prevent, detect, and treat infectious diseases.

Read the RSEQ’s announcement here.

This story originally appeared in Penn Medicine News’s Awards & Accolades post for April 2022.