Artificial Intelligence is Leveling Up the Fight Against Infectious Diseases


Image credit: NIAID

Artificial intelligence is a new addition to the infectious disease researcher’s toolbox. Yet in merely half a decade, AI has accelerated progress on some of the most urgent issues in medical science and public health. Researchers in this field blend knowledge of life sciences with skill in computation, chemistry and design, satisfying decades-long appeals for interdisciplinary tactics to treat these disorders and stop their spread.

Diseases are “infectious” when they are caused by organisms, including parasites, viruses, bacteria and fungi. People and animals can contract infectious diseases from their environments or food, or through interactions with one another. Some, but not all, are contagious.

Infectious diseases are an intractable global challenge, posing problems that continue to grow in severity even as science has offered a steady pace of solutions. The world continues to become more interconnected, bringing people into new kinds and levels of relation, and the climate crisis is throwing environmental and ecological networks out of balance. Diseases that were once treatable by drugs have become resistant, and new drug discovery is more costly than ever. Uneven resource distribution means that certain parts of the world are perennial hotspots for diseases that others never fear.

Cesar de la Fuente brings an expert eye to how AI has transformed infectious disease research in a recently published piece in Science with co-authors Felix Wong and James J. Collins from MIT.

Presidential Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioengineering and the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science, with additional primary appointments in Psychiatry and Microbiology within the Perelman School of Medicine, de la Fuente brings a multifaceted perspective to his survey of the field.

In the paper, de la Fuente and co-authors assess the progress, limitations and promise of research in AI and infectious diseases in three major areas of inquiry: anti-infective drug discovery, infection biology, and diagnostics for infectious diseases.

Read more in Penn Engineering Today.

The Art and Science of Living-Like Architecture


Collaborators from Penn Engineering and the Stuart Weitzman School of Design have created “living-like” bioactive interior architecture designed to one day protect us from hidden airborne threats. The figure above demonstrates (A) design for support lattices for the team’s innovative bioactive sites, (B) a ribbon-like geometry for hanging and (C, D) how these structures may be integrated into indoor environments to biologically sense and react to air.

“This technology is not alive,” says Laia Mogas-Soldevila. “It is living-like.”

The distinction is an important one for the assistant professor at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, for reasons both scientific and artistic. With a doctorate in biomedical engineering, several degrees in architecture, and a devotion to sustainable design, Mogas-Soldevila brings biology to everyday life, creating materials for a future built halfway between nature and artifice.

The architectural technology she describes is unassuming at first look: A freeze-dried pellet, small enough to get lost in your pocket. But this tiny lump of matter, the result of more than a year’s collaboration between designers, engineers and biologists, is a biomaterial that contains a “living-like” system.

When touched by water, the pellet activates and expresses a glowing protein, its fluorescence demonstrating that life and art can harmonize into a third and very different thing, as ready to please as to protect. Woven into lattices made of flexible natural materials promoting air and moisture flow, the pellets form striking interior design elements that could one day keep us healthy.

“We envision them as sensors,” explains Mogas-Soldevila. “They may detect pathogens, such as bacteria or viruses, or alert people to toxins inside their home. The pellets are designed to interact with air. With development, they could monitor or even clean it.”

For now, they glow, a triumphant first stop on the team’s roadmap to the future. The fluorescence establishes that the lab’s biomaterial manufacturing process is compatible with the leading-edge cell-free engineering that gives the pellets their life-like properties.

A rapidly expanding technology, cell-free protein expression systems allow researchers to manufacture proteins without the use of living cells.

Gabrielle Ho, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Bioengineering and co-leader of the project, explains how the team’s design work came to be cell-free, a technique rarely explored outside of lab study or medical applications.

“Typically, we’d use living E. coli cells to make a protein,” says Ho. “E. coli is a biological workhorse, accessible and very productive. We’d introduce DNA to the cell to encourage expression of specific proteins. But this traditional method was not an option for this project. You can’t have engineered E. coli hanging on your walls.”

Cell-free systems contain all the components a living cell requires to manufacture protein —energy, enzymes and amino acids — and not much else. These systems are therefore not alive. They do not replicate, and neither can they cause infection. They are “living-like,” designed to take in DNA and push out protein in ways that previously were only possible using living cells.

“One of the nicest things about these materials not being alive,” says Mogas-Soldevila, “is that we don’t need to worry about keeping them that way.”

Unlike living cells, cell-free materials don’t need a wet environment or constant monitoring in a lab. The team’s research has established a process for making these dry pellets that preserves bioactivity throughout manufacturing, storage and use.

Bioactive, expressive and programmable, this technology is designed to capitalize on the unique properties of organic materials.

Mogas-Soldevila, whose lab focuses exclusively on biodegradable architecture, understands the value of biomaterials as both environmentally responsible and aesthetically rich.

“Architects are coming to the realization that conventional materials — concrete, steel, glass, ceramic, etc. — are environmentally damaging and they are becoming more and more interested in alternatives to replace at least some of them. Because we use so much, even being able to replace a small percentage would result in a significant reduction in waste and pollution.”

Her lab’s signature materials — biopolymers made from shrimp shells, wood pulp, sand and soil, silk cocoons, and algae gums — lend qualities over and above their sustainable advantages.

“My obsession is diagnostic, but my passion is playfulness,” says Mogas-Soldevila. “Biomaterials are the only materials that can encapsulate this double function observed in nature.”

This multivalent approach benefited from the help of Penn Engineering’s George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace, and the support of its director, Sevile Mannickarottu. In addition to contributing essential equipment and research infrastructure to the team, Mannickarottu was instrumental in enabling the interdisciplinary relationships that led the team to success, introducing Ho to the DumoLab Research team collaborators. These include Mogas-Soldevila, Camila Irabien, a Penn Biology major who provided crucial contributions to experimental work, and Fulbright design fellow Vlasta Kubušová, who co-led the project during her time at Penn and who will continue fueling the project’s next steps.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

César de la Fuente Named AIMBE Fellow


César de la Fuente
César de la Fuente

César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Psychiatry, Microbiology, Bioengineering and in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has been named an American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) Fellow. The only faculty member inducted this year from the University of Pennsylvania, de la Fuente is one of the youngest members ever to have been selected as an AIMBE Fellow.

Election to the AIMBE College of Fellows is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to a medical and biological engineer, with AIMBE Fellows representing the top 2% of medical and biological engineers. 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.”

Nominated and reviewed by peers and members of the College of Fellows, de la Fuente was elected Fellow “for the development of novel antimicrobial peptides designed using principles from computation, engineering and biology.”

A formal ceremony will be held during the AIMBE Annual Event in Arlington, Virginia on March 27, 2023, where de la Fuente will be inducted along with 140 colleagues who make up the AIMBE College of Fellows Class of 2023.

AIMBE Fellows are among the most distinguished medical and biological engineers, including 3 Nobel Prize laureates and 17 Fellows having received the Presidential Medal of Science and/or Technology and Innovation, along with 205 having been inducted into the National Academy of Engineering, 105 into the National Academy of Medicine and 43 into the National Academy of

This story was originally posted in Penn Engineering Today.

Read more stories featuring César de la Fuente here.

New Insights into the Mechanisms of Tumor Growth


3d render of cells secreting exosomes
A team of researchers led by the School of Arts & Science’s Wei Guo offers new insights into a mechanism that promotes tumor growth. “This information could be used to help clinicians diagnose cancers earlier in the future,” says Guo.

In many instances, the physical manifestation of cancers and the ways they are subsequently diagnosed is via a tumor, tissue masses of mutated cells and structures that grow excessively. One of the major mysteries in understanding what goes awry in cancers relates to the environments within which these structures grow, commonly known as the tumor microenvironment.

These microenvironments play a role in facilitating tumor survival, growth, and spread. Tumors can help generate their own infrastructure in the form of vasculature, immune cells, signaling molecules, and extracellular matrices (ECMs), three-dimensional networks of collagen-rich support scaffolding for a cell. ECMs also help regulate cellular communications, and in the tumor microenvironment ECMs can be a key promoter of tumor growth by providing structural support for cancerous cells and in modulating signaling pathways that promote growth.

Now, new research led by the School of Arts & Science’s Wei Guo and published in the journal Nature Cell Biology has bridged the complex structural interactions within the tumor microenvironment to the signals that trigger tumor growth. The researchers studied cancerous liver cells grown on ECMs of varying stiffness and discovered that the stiffening associated with tumor growth can initiate a cascade that increases the production of small lipid-encapsulated vesicles known as exosomes.

“Think of these exosomes as packages that each cell couriers out, and, depending on the address, they get directed to other cells,” says Ravi Radhakrishnan, professor of bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and a co-author of the paper.

“By recording the number of packages sent, the addresses on these packages, their contents, and most importantly, how they’re regulated and generated, we can better understand the relationship between a patient’s tumor microenvironment and their unique molecular signaling signatures, hinting at more robust personalized cancer therapies,” Radhakrishnan says.

While studying exosomes in relation to tumor growth and metastasis has been well-documented in recent years, researchers have mostly focused on cataloging their characteristics rather than investigating the many processes that govern the creation and shuttling of exosomes between cells. As members of Penn’s Physical Sciences Oncology Center (PSOC), Guo and Radhakrishnan have long collaborated on projects concerning tissue stiffness. For this paper, they sought to elucidate how stiffening promotes exosome trafficking in cancerous intracellular signaling.

“Our lab previously found that high stiffness promotes the secretion of exosomes,” says Di-Ao Liu, co-first author of the paper and a graduate student in the Guo Lab. “Now, we were able to model the stiffening processes through experiments and identify molecular pathways and protein networks that cause this, which better links ECM stiffening to cancerous signaling.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

New Single Cell Analysis Tool

by Nathi Magubane

Researchers at Penn and colleagues have developed a tool to analyze single cells that assesses both the patterns of gene activation within a cell and which sibling cells shared a common progenitor.

3D illustration of a cell held by a pipet and a needle
Arjun Raj of the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Perelman School of Medicine, former postdoc Lee Richman, now of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and colleagues have developed a new analysis tool that combines a cell’s unique gene expression data with information about the cell’s origins. The method can be applied to identify new cell subsets throughout development and better understand drug resistance.

Recent advances in analyzing data at the single-cell level have helped biologists make great strides in uncovering new information about cells and their behaviors. One commonly used approach, known as clustering, allows scientists to group cells based on characteristics such as the unique patterns of active or inactive genes or by the progeny of duplicating cells, known as clones, over several generations.

Although single-cell clustering has led to many significant findings, for example, new cancer cell subsets or the way immature stem cells mature into “specialized” cells, researchers to this point had not been able to marry what they knew about gene-activation patterns with what they knew about clone lineages.

Now, research published in Cell Genomics led by University of Pennsylvania professor of bioengineering Arjun Raj has resulted in the development of ClonoCluster, an open-source tool that combines unique patterns of gene activation with clonal information. This produces hybrid cluster data that can quickly identify new cellular traits; that can then be used to better understand resistance to some cancer therapies.

“Before, these were independent modalities, where you would cluster the cells that express the same genes in one lot and cluster the others that share a common ancestor in another,” says Lee Richman, first paper author and a former postdoc in the Raj lab who is now at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “What’s exciting is that this tool allows you to draw new lines around your clusters and explore their properties, which could help us identify new cell types, functions, and molecular pathways.”

Researchers in the Raj Lab use a technique known as barcoding to assign labels to cells they are interested in studying, particularly useful for tracking cells, clustering data based on cells’ offspring, and following lineages over time. Believing they could parse more valuable information out of this data by incorporating the cell’s unique patterns of gene activation, the researchers applied ClonoCluster to six experimental datasets that used barcoding to track dividing cells’ offspring. Specifically, they looked at the development of chemotherapy resistance and of stem cells into specialized tissue types.

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Alex Hughes Named CMBE Rising Star

A collage of photos: Alex Hughes presenting, the title slide of his presentation with the title "Interpreting geometric rules of early kidney formation for synthetic morphogenesis," and his acknowledgements slides.
Alex J. Hughes presents at the BMES CMBE conference in January 2023. (Image credit: Riccardo Gottardi, Assistant Professor in Pediatrics and Bioengineering)

Alex J. Hughes, Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, was one of thirteen recipients of the 2023 Rising Star Award for Junior Faculty by the Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering (CMBE) Special Interest Group. The Rising Star Award recognizes a CMBE member in their early independent career stage that has made an outstanding impact on the field of cellular and molecular bioengineering. CMBE is a special interest group of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), the premier professional organization of bioengineers.

The Hughes Lab in Penn Bioengineering works to “bring developmental processes that operate in vertebrate embryos and regenerating organs under an engineering control framework” in order to “build better tissues.” Hughes’s research interest is in harnessing the developmental principles of organs, allowing him to design medically relevant scaffolds and machines. In 2020 he became the first Penn Engineering faculty member to receive the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and he was awarded a prestigious CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2021. Most recently, Hughes’s work has focused on understanding the development of cells and tissues in the human kidney via the creation of “organoids”: miniscule organ models that can mimic the biochemical and mechanical properties of the developing kidney. Understanding and engineering how the kidney functions could open doors to more successful regenerative medicine strategies to address highly prevalent congenital and adult diseases.

Hughes and his fellow award recipients were recognized at the annual BMES CBME conference in Indian Wells, CA in January 2023.

Read the full list of 2023 CMBE Award Winners.

OCTOPUS, an Optimized Device for Growing Mini-Organs in a Dish

by Devorah Fischler

With OCTOPUS, Dan Huh’s team has significantly advanced the frontiers of organoid research, providing a platform superior to conventional gel droplets. OCTOPUS splits the soft hydrogel culture material into a tentacled geometry. The thin, radial culture chambers sit on a circular disk the size of a U.S. quarter, allowing organoids to advance to an unprecedented degree of maturity.

When it comes to human bodies, there is no such thing as typical. Variation is the rule. In recent years, the biological sciences have increased their focus on exploring the poignant lack of norms between individuals, and medical and pharmaceutical researchers are asking questions about translating insights concerning biological variation into more precise and compassionate care.

What if therapies could be tailored to each patient? What would happen if we could predict an individual body’s response to a drug before trial-and-error treatment? Is it possible to understand the way a person’s disease begins and develops so we can know exactly how to cure it?

Dan Huh, Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, seeks answers to these questions by replicating biological systems outside of the body. These external copies of internal systems promise to boost drug efficacy while providing new levels of knowledge about patient health.

An innovator of organ-on-a-chip technology, or miniature copies of bodily systems stored in plastic devices no larger than a thumb drive, Huh has broadened his attention to engineering mini-organs in a dish using a patient’s own cells.

A recent study published in Nature Methods helmed by Huh introduces OCTOPUS, a device that nurtures organs-in-a-dish to unmatched levels of maturity. The study leaders include Estelle Park, doctoral student in Bioengineering, Tatiana Karakasheva, Associate Director of the Gastrointestinal Epithelium Modeling Program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), and Kathryn Hamilton, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and Co-Director of the Gastrointestinal Epithelial Modeling Program at CHOP.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Bushra Raj Receives NIH Grant Through High-risk, High-reward Research Program

Bushra Raj, Ph.D.

Eight researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine have received research grants designed to invest in high-risk, high-reward projects.

Bushra Raj, Assistant Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in the Perelman School of Medicine and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, was one of three Penn winners of the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award for independent projects developed by early-career investigators. More additional Penn scientists who received NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award for a project focusing on cancer research.

Raj’s project focuses on “testing a novel technology that uses CRISPR/Cas gene-editing tools to genomically record inputs from two signaling pathways in the developing zebrafish brain.”

Established in 2009, the Transformative Research Award promotes cross-cutting, interdisciplinary science and is open to individuals and teams of investigators who propose research that could potentially create or challenge existing paradigms.

Read the full list of grant recipients in Penn Medicine News.

Noordergraaf and Blair Student Scholars Share Their Summer 2022 Research

Each year, the the Department of Bioengineering seeks exceptional candidates to conduct summer research in bioengineering with the support of two scholarships: the Abraham Noordergraaf Student Summer Bioengineering Research Fund and the Blair Undergraduate Research Fund in the Department of Bioengineering. These scholarships provide a living stipend for students to conduct research on campus in a Penn research lab under the mentorship of a faculty member. The Abraham Noordergraaf Student Summer Bioengineering Research Fund provides financial support for undergraduate or graduate summer research opportunities in bioengineering with a preference for study in the area of cardiovascular systems. Dr. Noordergraaf, who died in 2014, was a founding member and first chair of Penn Bioengineering. The Blair Undergraduate Research Fund in the Department of Bioengineering supports three to five undergraduate research scholars each year with the support of Dr. James C. Blair II. After a competitive round of proposals, the following six scholars were chosen for the Summer 2022 semester. Keep reading below for the research abstracts and bios of the awardees.

The Blair Undergraduate Research Fund in the Department of Bioengineering (Blair Scholars)

Ella Atsavapranee

Student: Ella Atsavapranee (BE Class of 2023)

PI: Michael J. Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation, Bioengineering

“Lipid nanoparticle-mediated delivery of RAS protease to inhibit cancer cell growth”

Mutations in RAS, a family of proteins found in all human cells, drive a third of cancers, including many pancreatic, colorectal, and lung cancers. However, there are still no therapies that can effectively prevent RAS from causing tumor growth. Recently, a protease was engineered to specifically degrade active RAS, offering a promising new tool for treating these cancers. However, many protein-based therapies still cannot be effectively delivered to patients. Lipid nanoparticles (LNPs), which were used in the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, have emerged as a promising platform for safe and effective delivery of both nucleic acids and proteins. We formulated a library of LNPs using different cationic lipids. We characterized the LNPs by size, charge, and pKa, and tested their ability to deliver fluorescently labeled protease. The LNPs were able to encapsulate and deliver a RAS protease, successfully reducing proliferation of colon cancer cells.

Ella is a senior from Maryland studying bioengineering and chemistry. She works in Dr. Michael Mitchell’s lab, developing lipid nanoparticles to deliver proteins that reduce cancer cell proliferation. She has also conducted research on early-stage cancer detection and therapy monitoring (at Stanford University) and drug delivery across the blood-brain barrier for neurodegenerative diseases (at University of Maryland). She is passionate about translational research, science communication, and promoting diversity in STEM.

Chiadika Eleh

Student: Chiadika Eleh (BE and CIS Class of 2024)

PI: Eric J. Brown, Associate Professor of Cancer Biology, Perelman School of Medicine

“Investigating Viability in ATR and WEE1 Inhibitor Treated Ovarian Cancer Cells”

High-grade serous ovarian cancers (HGSOCs) are an aggressive subtype of ovarian cancer, accounting for up to 80% of all ovarian cancer-related deaths. More than half of HGSOCs are homologous recombination deficient; thus, they lack a favorable response when treated with common chemotherapeutic trials. Therefore, new treatment strategies must be developed to increase the life expectancy and quality of life of HGSOC patients. To address the lack of effective treatment options, the Brown Lab is interested in combining ATR and WEE1 inhibition (ATRi/WEE1i) to target HGSOC cells. It has previously been shown that low-dose ATRi/WEE1i is an effective treatment strategy for CCNE1-amplified ovarian cancer-derived PDX tumors (Xu et al., 2021, Cell Reports Medicine). Therefore, the next step is to characterize the HGSOC-specific response to ATRi/WEE1i treatment. This project aims to characterize the viability phenotype of ovarian cancer (OVCAR3) cells in the presence of ATRi/WEE1i in both single and combination treatments. With further research, Eleh hopes to prove the hypothesis low-dose combination ATRi/WEE1i treatment will result in the synergistic loss of viability in OVCAR3 cells. This goal will be achieved through the treatment of OVCAR3 cells with ranging doses of ATRi and Wee1i over 24 and 48 hour time intervals. We hope that this data will help set a treatment baseline that can be used for all OVCAR30-based viability experiments in the future.

Chiadika Eleh is a Bioengineering and Computer Science junior and a member of Penn Engineering’s Rachleff Scholar program. As a Blair Scholar, she worked in Dr. Eric Brown’s cancer biology lab, where she studied cell cycle checkpoint inhibitors as a form of cancer treatment.

Gloria Lee

Student: Gloria Lee (BE and PHYS Class of 2023)

PI: Yi Fan, Associate Professor of Radiation Oncology, Perelman School of Medicine, and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group

“Tbc1d2b regulates vascular formation during development and tissue repair after ischemia”

The mechanisms behind endothelial cells forming blood vessels remains unknown. We have identified Tbc1d2b as a protein that is integral to the regulation of vascular formation. In order to investigate the role of Tbc1d2b in tubule formation, fibrin gel bead assays will be conducted to evaluate how the presence of Tbc1d2b is required for angiogenesis. Fibrin gel bead assays simulate the extracellular matrix environment to support the in vitro development of vessels from human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVEC) coated on cytodex beads. In order to confirm the success of angiogenesis, immunostaining for Phalloidin and CD31 will be conducted. After confirmation that fibrin gel bead assays can produce in vitro tubules, sgRNA CRISPR knockout of Tbc1d2b will be performed on HUVEC cells which will then be used to conduct more fibrin gel bead assays. We hypothesize that HUVEC with the Tbc1d2b knockout phenotype will be unable to form tubules while wild type HUVEC will be able to.

Gloria Lee is a rising senior studying Bioengineering and Physics in the VIPER program from Denver, Colorado. Her research in Dr. Yi Fan’s lab focuses on the role that proteins play in cardiovascular tubule formation.

Abraham Noordergraaf Student Summer Bioengineering Research Fund (Noordergraaf Fellows)

Gary Lin

Student: Gary Lin (Master’s in MEAM Class of 2023)

PI: Michelle J. Johnson, Associate Professor in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Perelman School of Medicine, and in Bioengineering

“Development and Integration of Dynamically Modulating Control Systems in the Rehabilitation Using Community-Based Affordable Robotic Exercise System (Rehab CARES)”

As the number of stroke patients requiring rehabilitative care continues to increase, strain is being put onto the US health infrastructure which already has a shortage of rehabilitation practitioners. To help alleviate this pressure, a cost-effective robotic rehabilitative platform was developed to increase access to rehabilitative care. The haptic TheraDrive, a one-degree of freedom actuated hand crank that can apply assistive and resistive forces, was modified to train pronation and supination at the elbow and pinching of the fingers in addition to flexion and extension of the elbow and shoulder. Two controllers were created including an open-loop force controller and a closed-loop proportional-integral (PI) with adaptive control gains based on subject performance in therapy-game tasks as well as galvanic skin response. Stroke subjects (n=11) with a range of cognitive and motor impairment completed 4 therapy games in both adaptive and non-adaptive versions of the controllers (n=8) while measuring force applied on the TheraDrive handle. Resulting normalized average power versus Upper Extremity Fugl-Meyer (UE-FM) and Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA) correlation analyses showed that power was strongly correlated with UE-FM in 2 of the conditions and moderately correlated with the other 6 while MoCA was moderate correlated to 2 of the conditions and weakly correlated to the rest. Mann-Whitney U-tests between adaptive and non-adaptive versions of each therapy game showed no significant differences with regards to power between controller types (p<0.05).

Gary is a master’s student in the School of Engineering studying Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics with a concentration in Robotic and Mechatronic systems. His research primarily focuses on developing affordable rehabilitation robotics for use in assessment and game-based therapies post neural injury. Many of his interests revolve around the design of mechatronic systems and the algorithms used to control them for use in healthcare spaces.

Priya Shah

Student: Priya Shah (BE Class of 2024)

PI: Alex J. Hughes, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering

“Optogenetic Control of Developing Kidney Cells for Future Treatment of End-Stage Renal Disease”

This project sought to build from prior research in the Hughes Lab on the geometric and mechanical consequences of kidney form on cell and tissue-scale function. While the developmental trajectory of the kidney is well understood, little is currently known about many factors affecting nephron progenitor differentiation rate. Insufficient differentiation of nephron progenitor cells during kidney formation can result in lower nephron number and glomerular density, which is a risk factor for progression to end-stage renal disease later in life. Prior studies indicated that the amount of nephron differentiation – and thus function of the adult kidney – is correlated to the packing of ureteric tubule tips present at the surface of the kidney. Building off of research conducted in the Bugaj Lab, we found that inserting an optogenetic construct into the genome of human embryonic kidney (HEK) cells allowed us to manipulate the contraction of those cells through exposing them to blue light. Manipulating the contraction of the cells allows for the manipulation of the packing of ureteric tubule tips at the kidney surface. We used a lentiviral vector to transduce HEK293 cells with the optogenetic construct and witnessed visible contraction of the cells when they were exposed to blue light. Future work will include using CRISPR-Cas9 to introduce the optogenetic construct into IPS cells.

Priya is a junior studying bioengineering and had the opportunity to work on manipulating developing kidney cells using an optogenetic construct in the Hughes Lab this summer. She is thrilled to continue this research throughout the coming school year. Outside of the lab, Priya is involved with the PENNaach dance team and the Society of Women Engineers, as well as other mentorship roles.

Cosette Tomita

Student: Cosette Tomita (Master’s in MEAM Class of 2023)

PI: Mark Anthony Sellmyer, Assistant Professor, Radiology, Perelman School of Medicine and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group

“Expression and Characterization of an Anti-Aβ42 scFv”

Background: Amyloid Beta (Aβ42) fibrils contribute to the pathology of Alzheimer’s Disease. Numerous monoclonal antibodies have been developed against Aβ42. In this study we have designed and expressed a short chain variable fragment specific to Aβ42 (Anti-Aβ42 scFv). To characterize our anti-Aβ42 scFv we have performed structural analysis using transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and binding kinetics using microscale thermophoresis (MST) compared to commercially available antibodies 6E10, Aducanumab, and an IgG isotype control. The goal of this study is to determine if labeling densities and binding constants for Aducanumab and anti-Aβ42 scFv are not significantly different.

Method: To characterize Aβ42 fibril associated antibodies we used negative stain TEM. Aβ42 fibrils were stained on a glow discharged copper grid, and incubated with gold conjugated anti-Aβ42 scFv, 6E10—which binds all Aβ species, aducanumab, or IgG isotype control. Labeling densities were calculated as the number of fibril-associated gold particles per 1 μm2 for each image. Next, we used microscale thermophoresis determine the binding kinetics. Antibodies or anti-Aβ42 scFv were labeled with Alexa Fluor-647 and unlabeled Aβ42 was titrated in a serial dilution over 16 capillaries. The average fluorescence intensity was plotted against the antibody or scFv concentration and the curves were analyzed using the GraphPad Prism software to calculate the dissociation constant (KD) values.

Results: We found a significant difference, tested with a one-way ANOVA (P <0.0001), in gold particle associated Aβ fibrils per 1 μm2 between anti-Aβ42 scFv, 6E10, aducanumab, and IgG isotype control. Further analysis of aducanumab and 6CO3 with unpaired student t-test indicates significant differences in fibril associated gold particles between aducanumab vs. 6E10 (P=0.0003), Aducanumab vs. Isotype control (P <0.0001), anti-Aβ42 scFv vs 6E10 (p=0.0072), and anti-Aβ42 scFv vs Isotype Control (P=0.0029) with no significant difference in labeling densities between Aducanumab and anti-Aβ42 scFv. The expected KD values from MST were 1.8μM for Aducanumab and anti-Aβ42 scFv, 10.3nM for 6E10 and no expected binding for the isotype control. The experimental KD values for anti-Aβ42 scFv and 6E10 are 0.1132μM and 1.467μM respectively. The KD value for Isotype control was undetermined, as expected, however, the KD for Aducanumab was undetermined due to suboptimal assay conditions. Due to confounding variables in the experimental set up such as the use of Aβ1-16 compared to Aβ42 and the use of different fluorophores—5-TAMRA, Alexa Fluor 647 or FITC— the experimental KD values were off by several orders of magnitude.

Conclusion: We have illustrated similar labeling densities between Aducanumab and our anti-Aβ42 scFv. In the future, we will further optimize the MST assay conditions and compare the KD values obtained by MST with other techniques such as surface plasma resonance.

Cosette was born and raised in Chicago land area. Go Sox! She attended University of Missouri where she majored in Chemistry and Biology. She synthesized sigma-2 radiotracers and developed advanced skills in biochemical techniques in Dr. Susan Lever’s lab.  After graduation, she moved to NJ to work at Lantheus, a radiopharmaceutical company. She missed academia and the independence of program and project development, so she came to work at the Penn Cyclotron facility before entering the Bioengineering master’s program.

Microbes That Cause Cavities Can Form Superorganisms Able to ‘Crawl’ and Spread On Teeth

by Katherine Unger Baillie

Hyun (Michel) Koo

A cross-kingdom partnership between bacteria and fungi can result in the two joining to form a “superorganism” with unusual strength and resilience. It may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but these microbial groupings are very much part of the here and now.

Found in the saliva of toddlers with severe childhood tooth decay, these assemblages can effectively colonize teeth. They were stickier, more resistant to antimicrobials, and more difficult to remove from teeth than either the bacteria or the fungi alone, according to the research team, led by University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine scientists.

What’s more, the assemblages unexpectedly sprout “limbs” that propel them to “walk” and “leap” to quickly spread on the tooth surface, despite each microbe on its own being non-motile, the team reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

“This started with a very simple, almost accidental discovery, while looking at saliva samples from toddlers who develop aggressive tooth decay,” says Hyun (Michel) Koo, a professor at Penn Dental Medicine and a co-corresponding author on the paper. “Looking under the microscope, we noticed the bacteria and fungi forming these assemblages and developing motions we never thought they would possess: a ‘walking-like’ and ‘leaping-like’ mobility. They have a lot of what we call ‘emergent functions’ that bring new benefits to this assemblage that they could not achieve on their own. It’s almost like a new organism—a superorganism—with new functions.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Hyun (Michel) Koo is a professor in the Department of Orthodontics and the divisions of Community Oral Health and Pediatric Dentistry in the School of Dental Medicine, co-founder of the Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry (CiPD) at the University of Pennsylvania, and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.