Bella Mirro, a fourth year student in Bioengineering who also minors in Chemistry, spoke with 34th Street Magazine about her many roles at Penn, including being Co–President of Shelter Health Outreach Program (SHOP), a Research Assistant in lab of Michal A. Elovitz, the Hilarie L. Morgan and Mitchell L. Morgan President’s Distinguished Professor in Women’s Health at Penn Medicine, and a Penn Engineering Council Marketing Team Member. In this Q&A, she discusses her research in women’s health and her passions for accessible healthcare, serving Philadelphia’s homeless community, and good food.
Twin academics Dani S. Basset, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor and director of the Complex Systems Lab, and Perry Zurn, a professor of philosophy at American University, were recently featured as guests on NPR radio show “Detroit Today” to discuss their new book, “Curious Mind: The Power of Connection.”
In their book, Basset and Zurn draw on their previous research, as well as an expansive network of ideas from philosophy, history, education and art to explore how and why people experience curiosity, as well as the different types it can take.
Basset, who holds appointments in the Departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, as well as the Department of Physics and Astronomy in Penn Arts & Science, and the Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry in Penn Perelman’s School of Medicine, and Zurn spoke with “Detroit Today” producer Sam Corey about what types of things make people curious, and how to stimulate more curiosity in our everyday lives.
According to the twin experts, curiosity is not a standalone facet of one’s personality. Basset and Zurn’s work has shown that a person’s capacity for inquiry is very much tied to the overall state of their health.
“There’s a lot of scientific research focusing on intellectual humility and also openness to ideas,” says Bassett. “And there are really interesting relationships between someone’s openness to ideas, someone’s intellectual humility and their curiosity and also their wellbeing or flourishing,”
This year, the lineup of new student orientation activities included a new event: the first bioengineering retreat for incoming Ph.D. graduate students. Sitting in the historic Mitchell Hall at the College of Physicians, the 2022 Ph.D. cohort participated in a fun and educational half-day program that included a series of bonding activities, small-group conversations, and panel discussions. Current members of the Graduate Association of Bioengineers (GABE) planned the program to strengthen personal connections among students and to lend some advice to the newcomers as they embarked on their scholastic journey.
Prior to the retreat, participants read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, a work that delves into the human story of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman from Virginia whose cancer cells were obtained for scientific study in the early 1950s without her knowledge. Today, “HeLa” cells have become one of the most significant tools in cell biology, enabling the development of polio vaccines, research into radiation effects, and even research on COVID-19. Together at the retreat, we discussed the intersection of ethics and scientific discovery, and reflected on our responsibility as scientists to consider the impact of our work beyond the immediate scientific question.
Current Ph.D. students volunteered their afternoons to share in two additional activities. Aoife O’Farrell, David Mai, Lasya Sreepada, and Mosha Deng imparted sage advice about using on-campus resources, handling advisor-advisee conflicts, and finding the best bites in Philly in the “Surviving the Ph.D. 101” panel discussion. Seven other students presented a series of flash talks about their research areas and musings on the best hypothetical mascot to represent their lab. The afternoon finished with an after-hours visit to the Mütter Museum, which holds an extensive and unique collection of anatomical specimens and antique medical equipment previously used for medical education.
If the WhatsApp group formed by the new cohort during the event is any indication, the retreat was an overall success! GABE looks forward to continuing the event in the future.
Koo shared findings from one of his recent studies conducted in collaboration with Penn Engineering, which showed that a shapeshifting robotic microswarm can brush and floss teeth.
“Routine oral care is cumbersome and can pose challenges for many people, especially those who have a hard time cleaning their teeth” says Koo. “You have to brush your teeth, then floss your teeth, then rinse your mouth; it’s a manual, multistep process. The big innovation here is that the robotics system can do all three in a single, hands-free, automated way.”
The building blocks of these microrobots are iron oxide nanoparticles that have both catalytic and magnetic activity. Using a magnetic field, researchers could direct their motion and configuration to form either bristlelike structures that sweep away dental plaque from the broad surfaces of teeth, or elongated strings that can slip between teeth like a length of floss.
“Nanoparticles can be shaped and controlled with magnetic fields in surprising ways,” says Edward Steager, a senior research investigator at Penn Engineering and co-corresponding author. “We form bristles that can extend, sweep, and even transfer back and forth across a space, much like flossing. The way it works is similar to how a robotic arm might reach out and clean a surface. The system can be programmed to do the nanoparticle assembly and motion control automatically.”
Yi-An Hsieh, a fourth year Bioengineering student from Anaheim, California, worked remotely this summer on a team that spanned three labs, including the Kamoun Lab at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Hsieh credits her research on kidney graft failure with enriching her scientific skill set, exposing her to machine learning and real-time interaction with genetic datasets. In a guest post for the Career Services Blog, Hseih writes about her remote summer internship experience. “It showed me that this type of research energy that could not be dampened despite the distance,” she writes.
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.
“Padilla came to the CiPD training program earlier this year with a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Michael J. Mitchell of Penn’s Department of Bioengineering, where his research focuses on developing new materials to enhance the efficacy and safety of biological therapeutics. While passionate about research, he also has a strong interest in developing mentoring relationships and in teaching. At Wisconsin, Marshall earned a certificate in research, teaching, and learning, in which he conducted a research project on developing positive metacognitive practices in introductory organic chemistry. Additionally, he taught a course on mentoring in a research setting, and is passionate about promoting diversity and inclusiveness in biomedical sciences.”
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)
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.
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.
“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)
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.
“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.
Student: Cosette Tomita (Master’s in MEAM Class of 2023)
“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.
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 PennsylvaniaSchool 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.”
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.
Cynthia Reinhart-King, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Engineering and Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Vanderbilt University, was one of a handful of experts invited to take part in the White House Summit in Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing on September 14, 2022 in Washington, D.C. Reinhart-King and her colleagues gathered to discuss “bio-based solutions to global challenges ranging from food security and climate change to health security and supply chain disruptions.”