Penn Establishes the Center for Precision Engineering for Health with $100 Million Commitment

by Evan Lerner

The Center for Precision Engineering for Health will bring together researchers spanning multiple scientific fields to develop novel therapeutic biomaterials, such as a drug-delivering nanoparticles that can be designed to adhere to only to the tissues they target. (Image: Courtesy of the Mitchell Lab)

The University of Pennsylvania announced today that it has made a $100 million commitment in its School of Engineering and Applied Science to establish the Center for Precision Engineering for Health.

The Center will conduct interdisciplinary, fundamental, and translational research in the synthesis of novel biomolecules and new polymers to develop innovative approaches to design complex three dimensional structures from these new materials to sense, understand, and direct biological function.

“Biomaterials represent the ‘stealth technology’ which will create breakthroughs in improving health care and saving lives,” says Penn President Amy Gutmann. “Innovation that combines precision engineering and design with a fundamental understanding of cell behavior has the potential to have an extraordinary impact in medicine and on society. Penn is already well established as an international leader in innovative health care and engineering, and this new Center will generate even more progress to benefit people worldwide.”

Penn Engineering will hire five new President’s Penn Compact Distinguished Professors, as well as five additional junior faculty with fully funded faculty positions that are central to the Center’s mission. New state-of-the-art labs will provide the infrastructure for the research. The Center will seed grants for early-stage projects to foster advances in interdisciplinary research across engineering and medicine that can then be parlayed into competitive grant proposals.

“Engineering solutions to problems within human health is one of the grand challenges of the discipline,” says Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering. “Our faculty are already leading the charge against these challenges, and the Center will take them to new heights.”

This investment represents a turning point in Penn’s ability to bring creative, bio-inspired approaches to engineer novel behaviors at the molecular, cellular, and tissue levels, using biotic and abiotic matter to improve the understanding of the human body and to develop new therapeutics and clinical breakthroughs. It will catalyze integrated approaches to the modeling and computational design of building blocks of peptides, proteins, and polymers; the synthesis, processing, and fabrication of novel materials; and the experimental characterizations that are needed to refine approaches to design, processing, and synthesis.

“This exciting new initiative,” says Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein, “brings together the essential work of Penn Engineering with fields across our campus, especially in the Perelman School of Medicine. It positions Penn for global leadership at the convergence of materials science and biomedical engineering with innovative new techniques of simulation, synthesis, assembly, and experimentation.”

Examples of the types of work being done in this field include new nanoparticle technologies to improve storage and distribution of vaccines, such as the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines; the development of protocells, which are synthetic cells that can be engineered to do a variety of tasks, including adhering to surfaces or releasing drugs; and vesicle based liquid biopsy for diagnosing cancer.

N.B.: This story originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

Beth Winkelstein is the Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor in Bioengineering.

The featured illustration comes from a recent study led by Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, and Margaret Billingsley, a graduate student in his lab.

Through Brain Imaging Analysis in Rats, Penn Researchers Show Potential to Predict Whether Pain Will be Acute or Persistent

Beth Winkelstein, Megan Sperry, and Eric Granquist

Pain may be a universal experience, but what actually causes that experience within our brains is still poorly understood. Pain often continues long after the relevant receptors in the body have stopped being stimulated and can persist even after those receptors cease to exist, as is the case with “phantom limb” pain.

The exact experience an individual will have after a painful incident comes down to the complex, variable connections formed between several different parts of the brain. The inability to predict how those connections will form and evolve can make pain management a tricky, frustrating endeavor for both healthcare providers and patients.

Now, a team of Penn researchers has shown a way to make such predictions from the pattern of neural connections that begin to take shape soon after the first onset of pain. Though their study was conducted in rats, it suggests that similar brain imaging techniques could be used to guide treatment decisions in humans, such as which individuals are most likely to benefit from different drugs or therapies.

The study, published in the journal Pain, was led by Beth Winkelstein, Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering and Deputy Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, along with Megan Sperry, then a graduate student in her lab. Eric Granquist, Director of the Center for Temporomandibular Joint Disease at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in the Department of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery, and assistant professor of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery in Penn’s School of Dental Medicine, also contributed to the research.

“Our findings provide the first evidence that brain networks differ between acute and persistent pain states, even before those different groups of rats actually show different pain symptoms,” says Winkelstein.

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

Beth Winkelstein Appointed Deputy Provost at Penn

Provost Wendell Pritchett has announced the appointment of Beth Winkelstein as Deputy Provost.

Beth Winkelstein, Ph.D.

“Beth Winkelstein has become one of our most essential leaders of teaching, learning, and student life,” said Pritchett, “since she began her tenure as vice provost for education five years ago. Her insight and energy enhance every part of our campus. She leads both undergraduate and graduate education, collaborating with deans, faculty leaders, and the Office of the Vice Provost for University Life, as well as the Council of Undergraduate Deans, Council of Graduate Deans, Graduate Council of the Faculties, and Council of Professional Master’s Degree Deans.

“As deputy provost, she will continue this invaluable work while working closely with me to better integrate and expand our educational initiatives, especially by incorporating new technologies, new ways of teaching, and additional supports for faculty and students that advance our core priorities of innovation, impact, and inclusion,” Pritchett said. “As we enter this new and challenging phase of Penn history, Beth is the perfect person to help us chart the landscape ahead.”

Drawing on her experience as a former Penn undergraduate, Winkelstein has been a dynamic leader of initiatives to enhance undergraduate student life, especially the new Penn First Plus program, which provides targeted support for first-generation and/or low-income students, and the dedicated Second-Year Experience, which offers enhanced programs for second-year students to accompany Penn’s new second-year housing requirement. She has at the same time been a vital advocate for graduate and professional students, overseeing the Graduate Student Center and Family Center, while advancing a series of initiatives to improve every aspect of support for students’ academic progress, professional advancement, and work-life balance. Her leadership spans such key areas as College Houses and Academic Services, New Student Orientation, the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, and the Office of Student Conduct. And that leadership has been especially critical for the Online Learning Initiative and the Center for Teaching and Learning, in these recent months when that work has become central to Penn’s educational efforts.

Winkelstein’s leadership is based in her deep knowledge of and appreciation for the University, as well as her own scholarly and research distinction. She has taught in the Bioengineering Department in the School of Engineering and Applied Science since 2002, becoming in that time one of the world’s leading innovators in research on new treatments for spine and other joint injuries. Appointed two years ago as the Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor, she continues to lead her pioneering Spine Pain Research Lab, mentor students and postdocs, and serve as co-editor of the Journal of Biomechanical Engineering. Among her many professional honors, she is a Fellow of the Biomedical Engineering Society and the American Society of Mechanical Engineering and was elected to the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering and the World Council of Biomechanics.

Winkelstein earned a Ph.D. in bioengineering from Duke University and a B.S.E. cum laude in bioengineering from Penn as a Benjamin Franklin Scholar.

Originally posted in Penn Today.

Penn Bioengineering and COVID-19

A message from Penn Bioengineering Professor and Chair Ravi Radhakrishnan:

In response to the unprecedented challenges presented by the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, Penn Bioengineering’s faculty, students, and staff are finding innovative ways of pivoting their research and academic projects to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. Though these projects are all works in progress, I think it is vitally important to keep those in our broader communities informed of the critical contributions our people are making. Whether adapting current research to focus on COVID-19, investing time, technology, and equipment to help health care infrastructure, or creating new outreach and educational programs for students, I am incredibly proud of the way Penn Bioengineering is making a difference. I invite you to read more about our ongoing projects below.

RESEARCH

Novel Chest X-Ray Contrast

David Cormode, Associate Professor of Radiology and Bioengineering

Nanomedicine and Molecular Imaging Lab

Peter Noel, Assistant Professor of Radiology and BE Graduate Group Member

Laboratory for Advanced Computed Tomography Imaging

The Cormode and Noel labs are working to develop dark-field X-ray imaging, which may prove very helpful for COVID patients. It involves fabricating diffusers that incorporate gold nanoparticles to modify the X-ray beam. This method gives excellent images of lung structure. Chest X-ray is being used on the front lines for COVID patients, and this could potentially be an easy to implement modification of existing X-ray systems. The additional data give insight into the health state of the microstructures (alveoli) in the lung. This new contrast mechanics could be an early insight into the disease status of COVID-19 patients. For more on this research, see Cormode and Noel’s chapter in the forthcoming volume Spectral, Photon Counting Computed Tomography: Technology and Applications, edited by Katsuyuki Taguchi, Ira Blevis, and Krzysztof Iniewski (Routledge 2020).

Immunotherapy

Michael J. Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering

Mitchell Lab

Mike Mitchell is working with Saar Gill (Penn Medicine) on engineering drug delivery technologies for COVID-19 mRNA vaccination. He is also developing inhalable drug delivery technologies to block COVID-19 internalization into the lungs. These new technologies are adaptations of prior research published Volume 20 of Nano Letters (“Ionizable Lipid Nanoparticle-Mediated mRNA Delivery for Human CAR T Cell Engineering” January 2020) and discussed in Volume 18 of Nature Reviews Drug Discovery (“Delivery Technologies for Cancer Immunotherapy” January 2019).

Respiratory Distress Therapy Modeling

Ravi Radhakrishnan, Professor, and Chair of Bioengineering and Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Radhakrishnan Lab

Computational Models for Targeting Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). The severe forms of COVID-19 infections resulting in death proceeds by the propagation of the acute respiratory distress syndrome or ARDS. In ARDS, the lungs fill up with fluid preventing oxygenation and effective delivery of therapeutics through the inhalation route. To overcome this major limitation, delivery of antiinflammatory drugs through the vasculature (IV injection) is a better approach; however, the high injected dose required can lead to toxicity. A group of undergraduate and postdoctoral researchers in the Radhakrishnan Lab (Emma Glass, Christina Eng, Samaneh Farokhirad, and Sreeja Kandy) are developing a computational model that can design drug-filled nanoparticles and target them to the inflamed lung regions. The model combines different length-scales, (namely, pharmacodynamic factors at the organ scale, hydrodynamic and transport factors in the tissue scale, and nanoparticle-cell interaction at the subcellular scale), into one integrated framework. This targeted approach can significantly decrease the required dose for combating ARDS. This project is done in collaboration with Clinical Scientist Dr. Jacob Brenner, who is an attending ER Physician in Penn Medicine. This research is adapted from prior findings published in Volume 13, Issue 4 of Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine: “Mechanisms that determine nanocarrier targeting to healthy versus inflamed lung regions” (May 2017).

Diagnostics

Sydney Shaffer, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine

Syd Shaffer Lab

Arjun Raj, Professor of Bioengineering

Raj Lab for Systems Biology

David Issadore, Associate Professor of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering

Issadore Lab

Arjun Raj, David Issadore, and Sydney Shaffer are working on developing an integrated, rapid point-of-care diagnostic for SARS-CoV-2 using single molecule RNA FISH. The platform currently in development uses sequence specific fluorescent probes that bind to the viral RNA when it is present. The fluorescent probes are detected using a iPhone compatible point-of-care reader device that determines whether the specimen is infected or uninfected. As the entire assay takes less than 10 minutes and can be performed with minimal equipment, we envision that this platform could ultimately be used for screening for active COVID19 at doctors’ offices and testing sites. Support for this project will come from a recently-announced IRM Collaborative Research Grant from the Institute of Regenerative Medicine with matching funding provided by the Departments of Bioengineering and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) (PI’s: Sydney Shaffer, Sara Cherry, Ophir Shalem, Arjun Raj). This research is adapted from findings published in the journal Lab on a Chip: “Multiplexed detection of viral infections using rapid in situ RNA analysis on a chip” (Issue 15, 2015). See also United States Provisional Patent Application Serial No. 14/900,494 (2014): “Methods for rapid ribonucleic acid fluorescence in situ hybridization” (Inventors: Raj A., Shaffer S.M., Issadore D.).

HEALTH CARE INFRASTRUCTURE

Penn Health-Tech Coronavirus COVID-19 Collaborations

Brian Litt, Professor of Bioengineering, Neurology, and Neurosurgery

Litt Lab

In his role as one of the faculty directors for Penn Health-Tech, Professor Brian Litt is working closely with me to facilitate all the rapid response team initiatives, and in helping to garner support the center and remove obstacles. These projects include ramping up ventilator capacity and fabrication of ventilator parts, the creation of point-of-care ultrasounds and diagnostic testing, evaluating processes of PPE decontamination, and more. Visit the Penn Health-Tech coronavirus website to learn more, get involved with an existing team, or submit a new idea.

BE Labs COVID-19 Efforts

BE Educational Labs Director Sevile Mannickarottu & Staff

BE Educational Labs staff members Dana Abulez (BE ’19, Master’s BE ’20) and Matthew Zwimpfer (MSE ’18, Master’s MSE ’19) take shifts to laser-cut face shields.

The George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace staff have donated their PPE to Penn Medicine. Two staff members (Dana Abulez, BE ’19, Master’s BE ’20 and Matthew Zwimpfer, MSE ’18, Master’s MSE ’19) took shifts to laser-cut face shields in collaboration with Penn Health-Tech. Dana and Matthew are also working with Dr. Matthew Maltese on his low-cost ventilator project (details below).

Low-Cost Ventilator

Matthew Maltese, Adjunct Professor of Medical Devices and BE Graduate Group Member

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP)

Dr. Maltese is rapidly developing a low-cost ventilator that could be deployed in Penn Medicine for the expected surge, and any surge in subsequent waves. This design is currently under consideration by the FDA for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). This example is one of several designs considered by Penn Medicine in dealing with the patient surge.

Face Shields

David F. Meaney, Solomon R. Pollack Professor of Bioengineering and Senior Associate Dean

Molecular Neuroengineering Lab

Led by David Meaney, Kevin Turner, Peter Bruno and Mark Yim, the face shield team at Penn Health-Tech is working on developing thousands of rapidly producible shields to protect and prolong the usage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Learn more about Penn Health-Tech’s initiatives and apply to get involved here.

Update 4/29/20: The Penn Engineering community has sprung into action over the course of the past few weeks in response to COVID-19. Dr. Meaney shared his perspective on those efforts and the ones that will come online as the pandemic continues to unfold. Read the full post on the Penn Engineering blog.

OUTREACH & EDUCATION

Student Community Building

Yale Cohen, Professor of Otorhinolaryngology, Department of Psychology, BE Graduate Group Member, and BE Graduate Chair

Auditory Research Laboratory

Yale Cohen, and Penn Bioengineering’s Graduate Chair, is working with Penn faculty and peer institutions across the country to identify intellectually engaging and/or community-building activities for Bioengineering students. While those ideas are in progress, he has also worked with BE Department Chair Ravi Radhakrishnan and Undergraduate Chair Andrew Tsourkas to set up a dedicated Penn Bioengineering slack channel open to all Penn Bioengineering Undergrads, Master’s and Doctoral Students, and Postdocs as well as faculty and staff. It has already become an enjoyable place for the Penn BE community to connect and share ideas, articles, and funny memes.

Undergraduate Course: Biotechnology, Immunology, Vaccines and COVID-19 (ENGR 35)

Daniel A. Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

The Hammer Lab

This Summer Session II, Professor Dan Hammer and CBE Senior Lecturer Miriam R. Wattenbarger will teach a brand-new course introducing Penn undergraduates to a basic understanding of biological systems, immunology, viruses, and vaccines. This course will start with the fundamentals of biotechnology, and no prior knowledge of biotechnology is necessary. Some chemistry is needed to understand how biological systems work. The course will cover basic concepts in biotechnology, including DNA, RNA, the Central Dogma, proteins, recombinant DNA technology, polymerase chain reaction, DNA sequencing, the functioning of the immune system, acquired vs. innate immunity, viruses (including HIV, influenza, adenovirus, and coronavirus), gene therapy, CRISPR-Cas9 editing, drug discovery, types of pharmaceuticals (including small molecule inhibitors and monoclonal antibodies), vaccines, clinical trials. Some quantitative principles will be used to quantifying the strength of binding, calculate the dynamics of enzymes, writing and solving simple epidemiological models, methods for making and purifying drugs and vaccines. The course will end with specific case study of coronavirus pandemic, types of drugs proposed and their mechanism of action, and vaccine development.
Update 4/29/20: Read the Penn Engineering blog post on this course published April 27, 2020.

Neuromatch Conference

Konrad Kording, Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor of Bioengineering, Neuroscience, and Computer and Information Science

Kording Lab

Dr. Kording facilitated Neuromatch 2020, a large virtual neurosciences conferences consisting of over 3,000 registrants. All of the conference talk videos are archived on the conference website and Dr. Kording has blogged about what he learned in the course of running a large  conference entirely online. Based on the success of Neuromatch 1.0, the team are now working on planning Neuromatch 2.0, which will take place in May 2020. Dr. Kording is also working on facilitating the transition of neuroscience communication into the online space, including a weekly social (#neurodrinking) with both US and EU versions.

Neuromatch Academy

Konrad Kording, Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor of Bioengineering, Neuroscience, and Computer and Information Science

Kording Lab

Dr. Kording is working to launch the Neuromatch Academy, an open, online, 3-week intensive tutorial-based computational neuroscience training event (July 13-31, 2020). Participants from undergraduate to professors as well as industry are welcome. The Neuromatch Academy will introduce traditional and emerging computational neuroscience tools, their complementarity, and what they can tell us about the brain. A main focus is not just on using the techniques, but on understanding how they relate to biological questions. The school will be Python-based making use of Google Colab. The Academy will also include professional development / meta-science, model interpretation, and networking sessions. The goal is to give participants the computational background needed to do research in neuroscience. Interested participants can learn more and apply here.

Journal of Biomedical Engineering Call for Review Articles

Beth Winkelstein, Vice Provost for Education and Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor of Bioengineering

Spine Pain Research Lab

The American Society of Medical Engineers’ (ASME) Journal of Biomechanical Engineering (JBME), of which Dr. Winkelstein is an Editor, has put out a call for review articles by trainees for a special issue of the journal. The call was made in March 2020 when many labs were ramping down, and trainees began refocusing on review articles and remote work. This call continues the JBME’s long history of supporting junior faculty and trainees and promoting their intellectual contributions during challenging times.
Update 4/29/20: CFP for the special 2021 issue here.

Are you a Penn Bioengineering community member involved in a coronavirus-related project? Let us know! Please reach out to ksas@seas.upenn.edu.

 

 

Winkelstein Named to World Council of Biomechanics

Winkelstein
Beth Winkelstein, PhD

The University of Pennsylvania Department of Bioengineering is proud to announce that our senior faculty member Beth Winkelstein, PhD, who is also Vice Provost for Education and the newly named Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor, was elected as a councilor to the World Council of Biomechanics (WCB).  In the words of Dominique Barthes-Biesel, PhD, Chair of the WCB, and Roger Kamm, PhD, Chair of the Nominating Committee, Dr. Winkelstein’s election comes in recognition of her “distinguished contributions to and leadership in the field of biomechanics at an international level.” The appointment will be recognized at the WCB General Assembly, to be held at the 8th World Congress of Biomechanics in Dublin, Ireland on July 8.

Instituted in 1990, the WCB is an international academic and professional forum of engineers and scientists from five continents.  With her appointment, Dr. Winkelstein joins colleagues from MIT, Columbia, and Georgia Tech, among others. “I’m honored to be included as a representative among the impressive world leaders in biomechanics,” Dr. Winkelstein says, “and I look forward to helping shape the upcoming World Congresses and meetings.

Winkelstein Appointed Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor

Beth Winkelstein
Beth Winkelstein with SEAS Dean Vijay Kumar

The University of Pennsylvania Department of Bioengineering is proud to announce that our faculty member Beth Winkelstein, PhD, has been named the Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor by the Penn School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS). The endowed professorship is named for Eduardo D. Glandt, PhD, former Dean of SEAS and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering.

An undergraduate alumna of Penn, Dr. Winkelstein earned her PhD in Biomedical Engineering from Duke in 1999. Recruited by Dr. Glandt himself, Dr. Winkelstein returned to Penn as a Bioengineering faculty member in 2002, with tenure and promotion to Associate Professor in 2007 and promotion to Professor in 2011. Beginning that same year, she has taken on a series of increasingly important administrative positions, first as Bioengineering Graduate Group Chair (2011-12), then as Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education in SEAS (2012-2015), and now as Vice Provost for Education (since 2015).

Dr. Winkelstein is the principal investigator at the Spine Pain Research Lab, which studies and seeks to better understand chronic pain syndromes. On the basis of her research, she has received multiple awards and honors, including the NSF Career Award, the Y.C. Fung Award from the American Association of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and election as a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, the Biomedical Engineering Society, and the ASME. Most recently, Dr. Winkelstein was elected as a councilor in the World Council of Biomechanics.

“Receiving an endowed chair represents a recognition of an individual’s contributions to their field, their leadership, and the legacy of their trainees,” said David Meaney, PhD, Chair of the Bioengineering Department. “Beth’s research program continues to flourish, and her leadership in national societies grows constantly.”

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.