Strella Biotechnology Continues Scaling Up

Katherine Sizov (right) and Malika Shukurova (left) earned the 2019 President’s Innovation Prize for their startup, Strella Biotechnology.

“Fruit hacking” startup Strella Biotechnology, founded by students and faculty advisors from the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) and the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS), tackles food waste by monitoring fruit ripeness. No stranger to media coverage, Strella and co-founder Katherine Sizov have previously been spotlighted for receiving the 2019 President’s Innovation Prize, which included $100,000 of financial support, a $50,000 living stipend for both awardees, and a year of dedicated co-working and lab space at the Pennovation Center. 

Recently, Michael Birnbaum of the Washington Post spoke with Sizov about the hard work and flexibility it took to propel the company’s successful scaling endeavors: Strella is now monitoring 15 percent of all U.S. apples.  

“Sizov, 24, wants to eliminate food waste one fruit at a time. In central Washington, it was an effort that required almost as much quick footwork as the épée squad she captained as a championship fencer in college. One moment, she was trying to beam the sensor’s WiFi signal through the reception black hole of millions of apples, which cause transmission issues because of their high water content. The next, she was sitting down with laconic apple growers with orchards planted generations ago, trying to convince them she could help them avoid wasted fruit. By day’s end, she might be folding her 6-foot frame into the passenger seat of a rental car, balancing her laptop on her knees and trying to win over Silicon Valley investors on Zoom calls using skills she had picked up partly by watching YouTube tutorials.”

Read Michael Birnbaum’s Fighting food waste, one apple at a time” for more about Sizov’s motivation, background and process.

Strella Biotechnology was founded by Penn alumna Katherine Sizov (Bio 2019) and was initially developed in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory, the biomakerspace and primary teaching lab of the Department of Bioengineering. Sizov and Penn Bioengineering alumna Malika Shukurova (BSE 2019) won a President’s Innovation Prize in 2019. Read more BE blog stories featuring Strella Biotechnology.

BE Seminar: “Ionic Liquid-based Therapeutics” (Samir Mitragotri)

Samir Mitragotri, Ph.D.

Speaker: Samir Mitragotri, Ph.D.
Hiller Professor of Bioengineering and Hansjorg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering
John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Harvard University

Date: Thursday, November 18, 2021
Time: 3:30-4:30 PM EST
Zoom – check email for link or contact ksas@seas.upenn.edu
This seminar will be held virtually, but students registered for BE 699 can gather to watch in Moore 216.

Abstract: Ionic liquids, the liquid salts comprising organic anions and cations, offer exciting opportunities for several therapeutic applications. Their tunable properties offer control over their design and function. Starting with biocompatible ions, we synthesized a library of ionic liquids and explored them for various drug delivery applications. Ionic liquids provided unique advantages including overcoming the biological transport barriers of skin, buccal mucosa and the intestinal epithelium. At the same time, they also stabilized proteins and nucleic acids and enabled the delivery of biologics across these barriers. Ionic liquids also provided unique biological functions including adjuvancy towards vaccines and antimicrobial function. I will present an overview of the design features of ionic liquids and novel biomedical applications enabled by these unique materials.

Samir Mitragotri Bio: Samir Mitragotri is the Hiller Professor of Bioengineering and Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. His research is focused on transdermal, oral, and targeted drug delivery systems. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Medicine and National Academy of Inventors. He is also a foreign member of Indian National Academy of Engineering. He is also an elected fellow of AAAS, CRS, BMES, AIMBE, and AAPS. He is an author of over 350 publications, an inventor on over 200 patent/patent applications, and a Clarivate Highly Cited Researcher. He received his BS in Chemical Engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology, India and a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the Editor-in-Chief of AIChE’s and SBE’s journal Bioengineering and Translational Medicine.

Interact, Adapt, Repeat

Sophomores Linda Wu and Nova Meng spent the summer studying coevolution among plants, mutualistic bacteria, and parasitic nematodes in Corlett Wood’s biology lab.

by Katherine Unger Baillie

To study coevolution, the responsibilities of Nova Meng and Linda Wu included caring for plants in the Penn greenhouse. (Image: From July 2021, when masks were not required)

Coevolution is all around us. Think of the elongated blooms that perfectly accommodate a hummingbird’s slender mouth parts. But not all examples of species influencing one another’s evolutionary course accrue benefits to all parties. Tradeoffs are part of the game.

This summer, sophomores Linda Wu of Annandale, Virginia, and Nova Meng of Akron, Ohio, researched an coevolutionary scenario with benefits as well as costs for the species involved. Their work, supported by the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program (PURM) and conducted in the lab of biology professor Corlett Wood, has examined the relationship among plants in the genus Medicago, beneficial bacteria that dwell in their roots, and parasitic nematodes that try to steal the plants’ nutrients.

The Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships provides students in the PURM program awards of $4,500 during the 10-week summer research internship. Wu and Meng stayed busy through those weeks. Whether evaluating plants in a soybean field in Michigan or tending to hundreds—even thousands—of plants in the greenhouse at Penn, these aspiring researchers built a foundation for future scientific endeavors with hands-on practice.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” says Wu. “I’ve always been interested in genetics and evolution and have found parasitic relationships in particular really interesting. I like reading about weird parasites. This summer I’ve gotten to participate in lab meetings, read books about coevolution, and expand my knowledge about the topic.”

Mentored by Ph.D. student McCall Calvert, Wu spent the summer focused on the parasites in the Medicago model system the Wood lab uses. “I’m trying to see if those nematodes are specialists or generalists, if they’re locally adapted to their host plant or open to parasitizing on different species,” Wu says.

To do so, she’s grown pots and pots of plants in the Penn greenhouse, experimentally infecting Medicago plants as well as other species, such as carrot and daisy plants, with nematodes, to measure the degree to which the parasites flourish.

Meng, who is pursuing a bioengineering major, is examining how bacteria that dwell in plant roots affect the plants’ susceptibility to parasites.

Meng’s project looked at the bacterial side of the coevolutionary relationship. Overseen by lab manager and technician Eunnuri Yi, Meng looked at four strains of bacteria, known as rhizobia. Two strains are nitrogen-fixing, giving their associated plants a crucial nutrient to promote growth, while the other two do not seem to contribute nitrogen to the plants, and instead exist as parasites in the plants’ roots. “I’m looking at what happens when we infect the plants with nematode parasites,” Meng says, “to see if the plants that are open to mutualistic rhizobia are more susceptible to the nematode parasites.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Linda Wu is a sophomore pursuing an uncoordinated dual degree in business, energy, environment, and sustainability in the Wharton School and in biology with a concentration in ecology and evolution in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

Nova Meng is a sophomore majoring in bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Penn.

BE Seminar: “Dynamics of 3D Cell Migration and Organ Formation” (Kenneth Yamada)

Our next Penn Bioengineering seminar will be held on zoom next Thursday.

Kenneth Yamada, MD, PhD

Speaker: Kenneth Yamada, M.D., Ph.D.
NIH Distinguished Investigator
Cell Biology Section
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Date: Thursday, September 9, 2021
Time: 3:30-4:30 PM EDT
Zoom – check email for link or contact ksas@seas.upenn.edu
Location: Moore Room 216, 200 S. 33rd Street

Abstract: Real-time microscopy of the dynamics of cells and tissues in 3D environments is opening new windows to understanding the biophysical mechanisms of complex biological processes. Direct visualization is allowing us to explore fundamental questions in more depth that include: How do cells migrate in 3D? How do cancer cells invade? How is the extracellular matrix assembled? How are organs formed? Visualizing how cells move and organize into tissues is not only providing descriptive insights, but is also leading to the identification of novel, unexpected physical and mechanical mechanisms relevant to tissue engineering. Cells can use varying combinations of cell adhesion to adjacent cells and to the surrounding extracellular matrix with localized cellular contractility to migrate, invade, and produce the complex tissue architecture needed for organ formation.

Kenneth Yamada Bio: Kenneth Yamada has been an NIH Distinguished Investigator since 2011. He received MD and PhD degrees from Stanford. He was a Section Chief at the National Cancer Institute for 10 years and has been a Section Chief at NIDCR since 1990. He is an elected Fellow of the AAAS and American Society for Cell Biology. His research focuses on discovering novel mechanisms and regulators of cell interactions with the extracellular matrix and their roles in embryonic development and cancer. His research group focuses on the mechanisms by which three-dimensional (3D) extracellular matrix mediates key biological events, including cell migration, tissue morphogenesis, and cancer cell invasion. His research places particular emphasis on characterizing the dynamic movements of cells and their extracellular matrix as tissues are remodeled in 3D in real time. The biological systems they study include human primary cells migrating in 3D, human tumor cells and tissues, and mouse organ development. He places particularly high priority on developing future independent research leaders.

Yogesh Goyal Appointed Assistant Professor at Northwestern University

Yogesh Goyal, Ph.D.

The Department of Bioengineering is proud to congratulate Yogesh Goyal on his appointment as Assistant Professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology (CDB) in the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. His lab will be housed within the Center for Synthetic Biology. His appointment will begin in Spring 2022.

Yogesh grew up in Chopra Bazar, a small rural settlement in Jammu and Kashmir, India. He received his undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar. Yogesh joined Princeton University for his Ph.D. in Chemical and Biological Engineering, jointly mentored by Professors Stanislav Shvartsman and Gertrud Schüpbach. Yogesh is currently a Jane Coffin Childs Postdoctoral Fellow in the lab of Arjun Raj, Professor in Bioengineering and Genetics at Penn.

“I am so excited for Yogesh beginning his faculty career,” Raj says. “He is a wonderful scientist with a sense of aesthetics. His work is simultaneously significant and elegant, a powerful combination.”

With a unique background in engineering, developmental biology, biophysical modeling, and single-cell biology, Yogesh develops quantitative approaches to problems in developmental biology and cancer drug resistance. As a postdoc, Yogesh developed theoretical and experimental lineage tracing approaches to study how non-genetic fluctuations may arise within genetically identical cancer cells and how these fluctuations affect the outcomes upon exposure to targeted therapy drugs. The Goyal Lab at Northwestern will “combine novel experimental, computational, and theoretical frameworks to monitor, perturb, model, and ultimately control single-cell variabilities and emergent fate choices in development and disease, including cancer and developmental disorders.”

“I am excited to start a new chapter in my academic career at Northwestern University,” Goyal says. “I am grateful for my time at Penn Bioengineering, and I thank my mentor Arjun Raj and the rest of the lab members for making this time intellectually and personally stimulating.”

Congratulations to Dr. Goyal from everyone at Penn Bioengineering!

Alumni Spotlight: Jane Shmushkis

Jane graduated in Fall 2017 with both a B.S.E. in Bioengineering (with a Medical Devices Concentration) and M.S.E. in Bioengineering. Jane is currently an Automation Engineer at Mosa Meat (Maastricht, Netherlands) working on laboratory tools to scale up cultured beef production. Formerly, she was a Research & Development Engineer at Opentrons (Brooklyn, New York) working on affordable robots for life sciences research. She is also an instructor with Genspace Community Biology Lab (Brooklyn, New York).

Jane Shmushkis (BSE/MSE 2017)

“While at Penn, I worked in the Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory and Bio-MakerSpace and in the Chow Lab as a student researcher. The educational lab was a free space to mess around with rapid prototyping tools, including 3D printing, laser cutting, Arduino, and much more. The experience in synthetic biology research encouraged me to think of biology with an engineering lens and to have the confidence to plan my own experiments. The people I got to work with at the BioMakerSpace and the Chow Lab kept me optimistic through challenging semesters and excited to learn.

With this excitement to keep learning, I decided to submatriculate into the Bioengineering Master’s program. Because of the program’s flexibility, I could choose from a mix of project-based courses, like Biomechatronics and Modeling Biological Systems, and literature-based courses, like Tissue Engineering and Musculoskeletal Bioengineering. Outside of Bioengineering, I took classes to sharpen skills in part fabrication (Machine Design and Manufacturing) and programming (Computer Vision & Computational Photography). This breadth helped me realize how much I could do with a foundation in coding and mechanical design and an understanding of the life sciences.

Beyond Penn Engineering, I was involved in Penn Dance Company, CityStep Penn, and the Science & Technology Wing. Penn Dance was a necessary break for my body and mind. CityStep was a way to connect with the larger Philadelphia community through performing arts. STWing showed me how playful engineering can be. After a couple years on campus, I also built up the confidence to bike off campus. If you have a good helmet and quick reflexes, I really recommend it to explore more of Philly!”

This post is part of BE’s Alumni Spotlight series. Read more testimonies from BE Alumni on the BE website.

2021 CAREER Award recipient: Alex Hughes, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering

by Melissa Pappas

Alex Hughes (illustration by Melissa Pappas)

The National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award is given to early-career researchers in order to kickstart their careers in innovative and pivotal research while giving back to the community in the form of outreach and education. Alex Hughes, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering and in Cell and Developmental Biology, is among the Penn Engineering faculty members who have received the CAREER Award this year.

Hughes plans to use the funds to develop a human kidney model to better understand how the development of cells and tissues influences congenital diseases of the kidney and urinary tract.

The model, known as an “organoid,” is a lab-grown piece of human kidney tissue on the scale of millimeters to centimeters, grown from cultured human cells.

“We want to create a human organoid structure that has nephrons, the filters of the kidney, that are properly ‘plumbed’ or connected to the ureteric epithelium, the tubules that direct urine towards the bladder,” says Hughes. “To achieve that, we have to first understand how to guide the formation of the ureteric tubule networks, and then stimulate early nephrons to fuse with those networks. In the end, the structures will look like ‘kidney subunits’ that could potentially be injected and fused to existing kidneys.”

The field of bioengineering has touched on questions similar to those posed by Hughes, focusing on drug testing and disease treatment. Some of these questions can be answered with the “organ-on-a-chip” approach, while others need an even more realistic model of the organ. The fundamentals of kidney development and questions such as “how does the development of nephrons affect congenital kidney and urinary tract anomalies?” require an organoid in an environment as similar to the human body as possible.

“We decided to start with the kidney for a few reasons,” says Hughes. “First, because its development is a beautiful process; the tubule growth is similar to that of a tree, splitting into branches. It’s a complex yet understudied organ that hosts incredibly common developmental defects.

“Second,” he says, “the question of how things form and develop in the kidney has major medical implications, and we cannot answer that with the ‘organ-on-a-chip’ approach. We need to create a model that mimics the chemical and mechanical properties of the kidney to watch these tissues develop.”

The fundamental development of the kidney can also answer other questions related to efficiency and the evolution of this biological filtration system.

“We have the tendency to believe that systems in the human body are the most evolved and thus the most efficient, but that is not necessarily true,” says Hughes. “If we can better understand the development of a system, such as the kidney, then we may be able to make the system better.”

Hughes’ kidney research will lay the foundation for broader goals within regenerative medicine and organ transplantation.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Bioengineering Graduate Gabriel DeSantis Awarded Fulbright Grant

Gabriel DeSantis (BSE 2020, MSE 2021)

Congratulations to recent Penn Bioengineering graduate Gabriel DeSantis on being awarded a Fulbright grant for the 2021-22 academic year:

“The Fulbright Program is the United States government’s flagship international educational exchange program, awarding grants to fund as long as 12 months of international experience.

‘As an avenue for building cross-cultural understanding, the U.S. Student Fulbright Program is an unparalleled opportunity for American students to represent our country and our University across the world,’ says Jane Morris, executive director of Penn’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, which supports applicants. ‘We are so proud of all our Penn Fulbright students who will be contributing to this important mission through their study, research, and English teaching as Fulbrighters.’

Gabriel DeSantis, from Wellesley, Massachusetts, received his bachelor’s degree from Penn Bioengineering in 2020 and will graduate in May with a master’s degree in bioengineering from the School of Engineering and Applied Science. He was awarded a Fulbright to conduct research in Portugal at the International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory. There he will be creating a 3D bio-printed model to optimize the texture and nutritional profiles of cultivated meat. At Penn his academic interests included biology, food science, and sustainability, which he hopes to use to develop new systems of food production. On campus, DeSantis was a Penn Abroad Leader and board member of the Graduate Association of Bioengineers. He is a past chair of the Mask and Wig Club. He currently works as a research assistant for Allevi, a Philadelphia-based bioprinting company at Pennovation Works.”

Read the full list of Fulbright awardees in Penn Today.

Claudia Loebel Appointed Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan

by Mahelet Asrat

Claudia Loebel, MD, PhD (Photo/Mel Evans)

The Department of Bioengineering is proud to congratulate Claudia Loebel, M.D., Ph.D. on her appointment as Assistant Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan. Loebel is part of the University of Michigan’s Biological Sciences Scholar program, which recruits junior instructional faculty in major areas of biomedical investigation. Loebel’s appointment will begin in Fall 2021.

Loebel got her M.D. in 2011 from Martin-Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, Germany and her Ph.D. in Health Sciences and Technology from ETH Zurich, Switzerland in 2016. There she worked under her advisors Professors Marcy Zenobi-Wong from ETH Zurich and David Eglin from AO Research Institute Davos. At Penn, she conducted postdoctoral research in the Polymeric Biomaterials Laboratory of Jason Burdick, Robert D. Bent Professor in Bioengineering, and as a Visiting Research Scholar in the Mauck Laboratory of the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory in the Perelman School of Medicine.

Loebel was awarded a K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which supports her remaining time as a postdoc as well as her time as an independent investigator at the University of Michigan. Loebel is excited about training the next generation of scientists and engineers and being part of their journey in becoming independent and diverse thinkers.

Loebel’s research area is inspired by the interface between material science and regenerative engineering and how it can address specific problems related to tissue development, repair, and regeneration. By developing mechanically and strucatally dynamic biomaterials, microfabrication, and matrix manipulation techniques her works aim to recreate complex cell-matrix interactions and model tissue morphogenesis and disease. The ultimate goal of her research is to use these engineered systems to develop and translate more effective therapeutic treatments for diseases such as fibrotic, inflammatory, and congenital disorders. Her lab’s work will initially focus on developing engineering lung alveolar organoids, aiming to build models of acute and chronic pulmonary diseases and for personalized medicine.

Loebel says, “I am grateful to all my Ph.D. and postdoc mentors for their continuous support and especially Jason who, over the last few years, has trained me in becoming an independent scientist and mentor. This transition would not have been possible without such a great mentor team behind me.”

Congratulations Dr. Loebel from everyone at Penn Bioengineering!

BE Seminar: “Promoting Appendage/Limb Regeneration in Jellyfish, Drosophila, and Mouse” (Lea Goentoro)

We hope you will join us for our final seminar of the spring semester!

Speaker: Lea Goentoro, Ph.D.
Professor
Biology
California Institute of Technology

Date: Thursday, April 22, 2021
Time: 3:00-4:00 PM EDT
Zoom – check email for link or contact ksas@seas.upenn.edu

Abstract: Can limb regeneration be induced? In this talk, I will discuss our work to promote regeneration in animals with limited regeneration capacity. I will present our recent discovery of a strategy for inducing regenerative response in appendages, which works across three species that span the animal phylogeny. In Cnidaria, the frequency of appendage regeneration in the moon jellyfish Aurelia was increased by feeding with the amino acid L-leucine and the growth hormone insulin. In insects, the same strategy induced tibia regeneration in adult Drosophila. Finally, in mammals, L-leucine and sucrose administration induced digit regeneration in adult mice, including dramatically from mid-phalangeal amputation. The conserved effect of L-leucine and insulin/sugar suggests a key role for energetic parameters in regeneration induction. The simplicity by which nutrient supplementation can induce appendage regeneration provides a testable hypothesis across animals.

Lea Goentoro Bio: Lea Goentoro is a Professor of Biology in the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering at the California Institute of Technology. She holds a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from University of Wisconsin, Madison and a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Princeton University. Prior to joining Caltech, she did postdoctoral training in the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. Her work has been supported by the Damon-Runyon Cancer Foundation, the James S. McDonnell Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Health.