NAM, founded in 1970, is an independent organization of professionals that advises the entire scientific community on critical health care issues. Each year, NAM chooses up to 10 new ELHM Scholars who are early-to-mid-career professionals from a wide range of health-related fields, including biomedical engineering, internal medicine, psychiatry, radiology and journalism to serve a three-year term.
“We are delighted that Dr. de la Fuente is receiving recognition from the National Academy of Medicine for his breakthrough contributions and exceptional leadership in the life sciences,” says Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering. “His pioneering work using computers to accelerate antibiotic discovery is extraordinary. We proudly celebrate his selection as part of this outstanding group of scholars.”
Congratulations to the members of the Penn Bioengineering community who were awarded 2023 Accelerating from Lab to Market Pre-Seed Grants from the University of Pennsylvania Office of the Vice Provost for Research (OVPR).
Three faculty affiliated with Bioengineering were included among the four winners. Andrew Tsourkas, Professor in Bioengineering and Co-Director of the Center for Targeted Therapeutics and Translational Nanomedicine (CT3N), was awarded for his project titled “Precise labeling of protein scaffolds with fluorescent dyes for use in biomedical applications.” Tsourkas’s team created protein scaffold that can better control the location and orientation of fluorescent dyes, commonly used for a variety of biomedical applications, such as labeling antibodies or fluorescence-guided surgery. The Tsourkas Lab specializes in “creating novel targeted imaging and therapeutic agents for the detection and/or treatment of diverse diseases.”
Also awarded were Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group members Mark Anthony Sellmeyer, Assistant Professor in Radiology in the Perelman School of Medicine, and Rahul M. Kohli, Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Perelman School of Medicine.
From the OVPR website:
“Penn makes significant commitments to academic research as one of its core missions, including investment in faculty research programs. In some disciplines, the path by which discovery makes an impact on society is through commercialization. Pre-seed grants are often the limiting step for new ideas to cross the ‘valley of death’ between federal research funding and commercial success. Accelerating from Lab to Market Pre-Seed Grant program aims to help to bridge this gap.”
Read the full list of winning projects and abstracts at the OVPR website.
Paul Ducheyne, Professor Emeritus in Bioengineering and Orthopaedic Surgery Research, has won the 2023 Hironobu Oonishi Memorial Award from the International Society for Ceramics in Medicine (ISCM). This award, the ISCM’s top honor, will only be awarded ten times in total, with previous honorees hailing from Japan and France and focusing on clinical research and life sciences. As the fifth honoree, Ducheyne is the first biomaterials researcher and engineer to win this distinguished prize.
Dr. Hironobu Oonishi was one of the founders of the International Society for Ceramics in Medicine and a leading hip surgeon. He was known for his discovery that irradiated polyethylene displayed greatly improved wear resistance in total joint replacements. In his memory, the ISCM and Kyocera created the Hironobu Oohnishi Memorial Award, with the goal to honor scientists who contributed to ISCM and greatly advanced the clinical use of bioceramics. Each year, the awardee is selected by a committee chaired by Dr. Hiroshi Oonishi, Dr. Hironobu Oonishi’s son. Once ten awardees have been selected, the award granting process will be closed.
Dr. Ducheyne accepted his award at the ISCM annual meeting in Solothurn, Switzerland in October 2023, where he delivered the Opening Ceremony lecture entitled “Bioceramics and Clinical Use – the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
Dr. Ducheyne has been a leading scientist in the field of biomaterial research for decades, with seminal contributions to biomaterials research, especially as it relates to orthopaedics. In bioceramics research, he clearly delineated the unusual properties of engineered bioactive ceramics. Not only was he at the vanguard of the development of these materials, he also generated a fundamental understanding of how these materials exhibit bone bioactive properties and promote skeletal healing. His group has also studied inorganic controlled release materials and has demonstrated the utility of sol-gel synthesized silica-based nanoporous materials for therapeutic use. These materials may well represent a next generation of agents for delivery of drugs, including antibiotics, analgesics, and osteogenic and anti-inflammatory molecules.
During his tenure at Penn, he directed the Center for Bioactive Materials and Tissue Engineering. He was also a Special Guest Professor at the KU Leuven, Belgium. He has founded several successful companies: XeroThera, a spin-out from Penn, that is developing advanced controlled delivery concepts for prophylaxis and treatment of surgical infections; Orthovita, a leading, independent biomaterials company in the world with more than 250 employees at the time of its acquisition by Stryker in June 2011; and Gentis, Inc., which focuses on breakthrough concepts for spinal disorders.
Congratulations to Dr. Ducheyne from everyone at Penn Bioengineering.
The sting of a toothache or the discovery of a cavity is a universal dread. Dental caries, more commonly known as tooth decay, is an insidious adversary, taking a toll on millions of mouths worldwide. Caries can lead to pain, tooth loss, infection, and, in severe cases, even death.
While fluoride-based treatments have long been the gold standard in dentistry, this singular approach is now dated and has limited effect. Current treatments do not sufficiently control biofilm—the main culprit behind dental caries—and prevent enamel demineralization at the same time. This dual dilemma becomes particularly pronounced in high-risk populations where the onset of the disease can be both rapid and severe.
“Traditional treatments often come short in managing the complex biofilm environment in the mouth,” Koo, senior co-author on the study, says. “Our combined treatment not only amplifies the effectiveness of each agent but does so with a lower dosage, hinting at a potentially revolutionary method for caries prevention in high-risk individuals.”
David Cormode is an associate professor of radiology and bioengineering with appointments in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Other authors are Yue Huang, Nil Kanatha Pandey, Shrey Shah, and Jessica C. Hsu of Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine; Yuan Liu, Aurea Simon-Soro, Zhi Ren, Zhenting Xiaang, Dongyeop Kim, Tatsuro Ito, Min Jun Oh, and Yong Li of Penn’s School of Dental Medicine; Paul. J Smeets, Sarah Boyer, Xingchen Zhao, and Derk Joester of Northwestern University; and Domenick T. Zero of Indiana University.
The work was supported by the National Institute of Health (grants R01-DE025848 and TL1TR001423 and awards S10OD026871 and R90DE031532) and the National Science Foundation (awards ECCS-2025633 and DMR-1720139).
Akin to the packages sent from one person to another via an elaborate postal system, cells send tiny parcels that bear contents and packaging material that serve key purposes: To protect the contents from the outside world and to make sure it gets to the right place via a label with an address.
These packages are known as extracellular vesicles (EVs)—lipid-bound molecules that serve a variety of regulatory and maintenance functions throughout the body. They assist in the removal of unwanted materials within the cell, and they transport proteins, aid in DNA and RNA transfer, and promote tumorigeneses in cancerous cells.
Given their myriad roles, EVs have taken center stage for many researchers in the biomedical space as they have the potential to improve current methods of disease detection and treatment. The main challenge, however, is accurately identifying the molecular contents of EVs while also characterizing the EVs, which, unlike other cellular components that are more homogenous, have more heterogeneity.
Now, a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania has developed a novel platform, droplet-free double digital assay, for not only profiling individual EVs but also accurately discerning their molecular contents. The researchers took the digital assay, which quantifies the contents of a molecule via binary metric—a 1 corresponds to the presence of a molecule and a zero to the lack thereof—and applies it to the EV. The work is published in Advanced Science.
The researchers first compartmentalized individual EVs utilizing a microwell approach to isolate the EVs. Next, they captured individual molecules within the EVs and amplified the signal for clarity. The team then was able to determine the expression levels of pivotal EV biomarkers with remarkable precision via fluorescence.
Jina Ko is an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine and an assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania.
David Reynolds is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Bioengineering in Penn Engineering.
Other authors include, Menghan Pan, George Galanis, Yoon Ho Roh, Renee-Tyler T. Morales, Shailesh Senthil Kumar, and Su-Jin Heo of the Department of Bioengineering at Penn Engineering; Jingbo Yang and Xiaowei Xu of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Penn Medicine; and Wei Guo of the Department of Biology in the School of Arts & Sciences at Penn.
The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health: grants R00CA256353, R35 GM141832, and CA174523 (SPORE).
Breaking the code of the immune system could provide a new fundamental way of understanding, treating, and preventing every type of disease. Penn Medicine is investing in key discoveries about immunity and immune system function, and building infrastructure, to make that bold idea a reality.
This grandfather lives with primary progressive multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disorder that he controls with a medicine that depletes his body of the type of immune cells that make antibodies. So while he has completed his COVID-19 vaccine course, his immune system function isn’t very strong—and the invitation has arrived at a time when COVID-19 is still spreading rapidly.
You can imagine the scene as an older gentleman lifts a thick, creamy envelope from his mailbox, seeing his own name written in richly scripted lettering. He beams with pride and gratitude at the sight of his granddaughter’s wedding invitation. Yet his next thought is a sober and serious one. Would he be taking his life in his hands by attending the ceremony?
“In the past, all we could do was [measure] the antibody response,” says Amit Bar-Or, the Melissa and Paul Anderson President’s Distinguished Professor in Neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine, and chief of the Multiple Sclerosis division. “If that person didn’t have a good antibody response, which is likely because of the treatment they’re on, we’d shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t go because we don’t know if you’re protected.’”
Today, though, Bar-Or can take a deeper dive into his patients’ individual immune systems to give them far more nuanced recommendations. A clinical test for immune cells produced in response to the COVID-19 vaccine or to the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself—not just antibodies—was one of the first applied clinical initiatives of a major new Immune Health® project at Penn Medicine. Doctors were able to order this test and receive actionable answers through the Penn Medicine electronic health record for patients like the grandfather with MS.
“With a simple test and an algorithm we can have a very different discussion,” Bar-Or says. A test result showing low T cells, for instance, would tell Bar-Or his patient may get a meaningful jolt in immunity from a vaccine booster, while low antibody levels would suggest passive antibody therapy is more helpful. Or, the test might show his body is already well primed to protect him, making it reasonably safe to attend the wedding.
This COVID-19 immunity test is only the beginning.
Physicians and scientists at Penn Medicine are imagining a future where patients can get a precise picture of their immune systems’ activity to guide treatment decisions. They are working to bring the idea of Immune Health to life as a new area of medicine. In labs, in complex data models, and in the clinic, they are beginning to make sense out of the depth and breadth of the immune system’s millions of as-yet-undeciphered signals to improve health and treat illnesses of all types.
Penn Medicine registered the trademark for the term “Immune Health” in recognition of the potential impact of this research area and its likelihood to draw non-academic partners as collaborators in its growth. Today, at the south end of Penn’s medical campus, seven stories of research space are being added atop an office building at 3600 Civic Center Blvd., including three floors dedicated to Immune Health, autoimmunity, and immunology research.
The concept behind the whole project, says E. John Wherry, director of Penn Medicine’s Institute for Immunology and Immune Health (I3H), “is to listen to the immune system, to profile the immune system, and use those individual patient immune fingerprints to diagnose and treat diseases as diverse as immune-related diseases, cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, and many others.”
The challenge is vast. Each person’s immune system is far more complex than antibodies and T cells alone. The immune system is made of multiple interwoven layers of complex defenders—from our skin and mucous membranes to microscopic memory B cells that never forget a childhood infection—meant to fortify our bodies from germs and disease. It is a sophisticated system that learns and adapts over our lifetimes in numerous ways, and it also falters and fails in some ways we understand and others that remain mysterious. And each person’s intricate internal battlefield is in some way unique.
The immune system is not just a set of defensive barricades, either. It’s also a potential source of deep insight about a person’s physiological functioning and responses to medical treatments.
“The immune system is sensing and keeping track of basically all tissues and all cells in our body all the time,” Wherry says. “It is surveying the body trying to clean up any invaders and restore homeostasis by maintaining good health.”
“Our goal is to essentially break the code of the immune system,” says Jonathan Epstein, executive vice dean of the Perelman School of Medicine and chief scientific officer at Penn Medicine. “By doing so, we believe we will be able to determine your state of health and your response to therapies in essentially every human disease.”
In the most recent episode of the Penn Engineering podcast Innovation & Impact, titled “RNA: Past, Present and Future,” David F. Meaney, Senior Associate Dean of Penn Engineering and Solomon R. Pollack Professor in Bioengineering, is joined by Mike Mitchell, Associate Professor in Bioengineering, and Noor Momin, who will be joining Penn Engineering as an Assistant Professor in Bioengineering early next year, to discuss the impact that RNA has had on health care and biomedical engineering technologies.
Mitchell outlines his lab’s research that spans drug delivery, new technology in protecting RNA and its applications in treating cancer. Momin details her research, which is focused on optimizing the immune system to protect against illnesses such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer. With Meaney driving the discussion around larger questions, including the possibility of a cancer vaccine, the three discuss what they are excited about now and where the field is going in the future with these emerging, targeted treatments.
The High-Risk, High-Reward Research program catalyzes scientific discovery by supporting highly innovative research proposals that, due to their inherent risk, may struggle in the traditional peer-review process despite their transformative potential. Program applicants are encouraged to think “outside the box” and pursue trail-blazing ideas in any area of research relevant to the NIH’s mission to advance knowledge and enhance health.
Two Penn Bioengineering faculty, Johnson and Ko, are among 85 recipients for 2023.
Ko is an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine and Department of Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. She focuses on developing single molecule detection from single extracellular vesicles and multiplexed molecular profiling to better diagnose diseases and monitor treatment efficacy. Ko earned her Ph.D. in bioengineering at Penn in 2018, during which time she developed machine learning-based microchip diagnostics that can detect blood-based biomarkers to diagnose pancreatic cancer and traumatic brain injury. For her postdoctoral training, she worked at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Wyss Institute at Harvard University as a Schmidt Science Fellow and a NIH K99/R00 award recipient. Ko developed new methods to profile single cells and single extracellular vesicles with high throughput and multiplexing.
Let’s say you typically eat eggs for breakfast but were running late and ate cereal. As you crunched on a spoonful of Raisin Bran, other contextual similarities remained: You ate at the same table, at the same time, preparing to go to the same job. When someone asks later what you had for breakfast, you incorrectly remember eating eggs.
This would be a real-world example of a false memory. But what happens in your brain before recalling eggs, compared to what would happen if you correctly recalled cereal?
In a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University of Pennsylvania neuroscientists show for the first time that electrical signals in the human hippocampus differ immediately before recollection of true and false memories. They also found that low-frequency activity in the hippocampus decreases as a function of contextual similarity between a falsely recalled word and the target word.
“Whereas prior studies established the role of the hippocampus in event memory, we did not know that electrical signals generated in this region would distinguish the imminent recall of true from false memories,” says psychology professor Michael Jacob Kahana, director of the Computational Memory Lab and the study’s senior author. He says this shows that the hippocampus stores information about an item with the context in which it was presented.
Researchers also found that, relative to correct recalls, the brain exhibited lower theta and high-frequency oscillations and higher alpha/beta oscillations ahead of false memories. The findings came from recording neural activity in epilepsy patients who were already undergoing invasive monitoring to pinpoint the source of their seizures.
Noa Herz, lead author and a postdoctoral fellow in Kahana’s lab at the time of the research, explains that the monitoring was done through intracranial electrodes, the methodology researchers wanted to use for this study. She says that, compared to scalp electrodes, this method “allowed us to more precisely, and directly, measure the neural signals that were generated in deep brain structures, so the activity we are getting is much more localized.”
Michael Kahana is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Psychology in the School of Arts & Sciences and director of the Computational Memory Lab at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.
In an era peppered by breathless discussions about artificial intelligence—pro and con—it makes sense to feel uncertain, or at least want to slow down and get a better grasp of where this is all headed. Trusting machines to do things typically reserved for humans is a little fantastical, historically reserved for science fiction rather than science.
Not so much for César de la Fuente, PhD, the Presidential Assistant Professor in Psychiatry, Microbiology, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Bioengineering in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and School of Engineering and Applied Science. Driven by his transdisciplinary background, de la Fuente leads the Machine Biology Group at Penn: aimed at harnessing machines to drive biological and medical advances.
“Biology is complexity, right? You need chemistry, you need mathematics, physics and computer science, and principles and concepts from all these different areas, to try to begin to understand the complexity of biology,” he said. “That’s how I became a scientist.”