In a ‘Wired’ feature, Bassett helps explain the growing field of network neuroscience and how the form and function of the brain are connected.
Early attempts to understand how the brain works included the pseudoscience of phrenology, which theorized that various mental functions could be determined through the shape of the skull. While those theories have long been debunked, modern neuroscience has shown a kernel of truth to them: those functions are highly localized to different regions of the brain.
Now, Danielle Bassett, Professor of J. Peter Skirkanich Professor of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, is pioneering a new subfield that goes even deeper into the connection between the brain’s form and function: network neuroscience.
In a recent feature article in Wired, Bassett explains the concepts behind this new subfield. While prior understanding has long relied on the idea that certain areas of the brain control certain functions, Bassett and other network neuroscientists are using advances in imaging and machine learning to reveal the role the connections between those areas play.
For Bassett, one of the first indicators that these connections mattered more than previously realized was the shape of the neurons themselves.
Speaking with Wired’s Grace Huckins, Bassett says:
“Neurons are not spherical — neurons have a cell body, and then they have this long tail that allows them to connect to many other cells. You can even look at the morphology of the neuron and say, ‘Oh, well, connectivity has to matter. Otherwise, it wouldn’t look like this.’”
Read more about Bassett and the field of network neuroscience in Wired.
Among the key faculty involved in this new center is J. Peter Skirkanich Professor of Bioengineering Danielle Bassett. Bassett’s Complex Systems Lab studies biological, physical, and social systems by using and developing tools from network science and complex systems theory. Bassett, along with Assistant Professor of Psychiatry Desmond Oathes, will work to:
understand how TMS [i.e. transcranial magnetic stimulation] might improve working memory in healthy adults and those with ADHD by combining network control theory (a set of concepts and principles employed in engineering), magnetic stimulation of the brain, and functional brain imaging.
Drugs are commonly injected directly into an injury site to speed healing. For chronic pain, clinicians can inject drugs to reduce inflammation in painful joints, or can inject nerve blockers to block the nerve signals that cause pain. In a recent study, a group from UCLA developed a technique to deform a material surrounding nerve fibers to trigger a response in the fibers that would relieve pain. The combination of mechanics and treatment – i.e., ‘mechanoceuticals’ – is a clever way to trick fibers and reverse painful symptoms. Done without any injections and simply controlling magnetic fields outside the body, this approach can be reused as necessary.
The design of this mechanoceutical was completed by Dino Di Carlo, PhD, Professor of Bioengineering, and his team at UCLA’s Sameuli School of Engineering. By encasing tiny, magnetic nanoparticles within a biocompatible hydrogel, the group used magnetic force to stimulate nerve fibers and cause a corresponding decrease in pain signals. This promising development opens up a new approach to pain management, one which can be created with different biomaterials to suit different conditions, and delivered “on demand” without worrying about injections or, for that matter, any prescription drugs.
Understanding the Adolescent Brain
It’s no surprise that adults and adolescents often struggle to understand one another, but the work of neurologists and other researchers provides a possible physical reason for why that might be. Magnetic resonance elastrography (MRE) is a tool used in biomedical imaging to estimate the mechanical properties, or stiffness, of tissue throughout the body. Unexpectedly, a recent study suggests that brain stiffness correlates with cognitive ability, suggesting MRE may provide insight into patients’ behavior, psychology, and psychiatric state.
A new paper in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience published the results of a study using MRE to track the relative “stiffness” vs. “softness” of adult and adolescent brains. The University of Delaware team, led by Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Curtis Johnson, PhD, and his doctoral student Grace McIlvain, sampled 40 living subjects (aged 12-14) and compared the properties to healthy adult brains.
The study found that children and adolescent brains are softer than those of adults, correlating to the overall malleability of childhood development. The team hopes to continue their studies with younger and older children, looking to demonstrate exactly when and how the change from softness to stiffness takes place, and how these properties correspond to individual qualities such as risk-taking or the onset of puberty. Eventually, establishing a larger database of measurements in the pediatric brain will help further studies into neurological and cognitive disorders in children, helping to understand conditions such as multiple sclerosis, autism, and cerebral palsy.
Can Nanoparticles Replace Stents?
Researchers and clinicians have made amazing advances in heart surgery. Stents, in particular, have become quite sophisticated: they are used to both prop open clogged arteries as well as deliver blood-thinning medication slowly over days to weeks in the area of the stent. However, the risk of blood clotting increases with stents and the blood vessels can constrict over time after the stent is placed in the vessel.
A recent NIH grant will support the design of a stent-free solution to unclog blood vessels. Led by Shaoqin Gong, PhD, Vilas Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering at UW-Madison, the team used nanoparticles (or nanoclusters) to directly target the affected blood vessels and prevent regrowth of the cells post-surgery, eliminating the need for a stent to keep the pathways open. These nanoclusters are injected through an intravenous line, further reducing the risks introduced by the presence of the stent. As heart disease affects millions of people worldwide, this new material has far-reaching consequences. Their study is published in the September edition of Biomaterials.
NIST Grant Supports
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) awarded a $30 million grant to Johns Hopkins University, Binghamton University, and Morgan State University as part of their Professional Research Experience Program (PREP). Over five years, this award will support the collaboration of academics from all levels (faculty, postdoc, graduate, and undergraduate) across the three universities, enabling them to conduct research and attend NIST conferences.
The principal investigator for Binghamton U. is Professor and Chair of the Biomedical Engineering Department, Kaiming Ye, PhD. Dr. Ye is also the Director of the Center of Biomanufacturing for Regenerative Medicine (CBRM), which will participate in this collaborative new enterprise. Dr. Ye hopes that this grant will create opportunities for academics and researchers to network with each other as well as to more precisely define the standards for the fields of regenerative medicine and biomaterial manufacturing.
The gift honors the late A. James Clark, former CEO of Clark Enterprises and Clark Construction Group LLC, one of the country’s largest privately-held general building contractors. It is designed to prepare future engineering and business leaders, with an emphasis on low income families and first-generation college students. Clark never forgot that his business successes began with an engineering scholarship. This has guided the Clark family’s longstanding investments in engineering education and reflects its commitment to ensure college remains accessible and affordable to high-potential students with financial need.
We are proud to say that three incoming Clark Scholars from the Freshman Class of 2022 will be part of the Bioengineering Department here at Penn.
And finally, our congratulations to the new Dean of the School of Engineering at the University of Mississippi: David A. Puleo, PhD. Dr. Puleo earned his bachelor’s degree and doctorate in Biomedical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Most recently he served as Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies at the University of Kentucky’s College of Engineering. Building on his research in regenerative biomaterials, he also founded Regenera Materials, LLC in 2014. Over the course of his career so far, Dr. Puleo received multiple teaching awards and oversaw much departmental growth within his previous institution, and looks poised to do the same for “Ole Miss.”
Medical researchers have long been baffled by the need to find safe and effective treatment for a common condition called temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMD). Affecting around twenty-five percent of the adult population worldwide, TMD appears overwhelmingly in adolescent, premenopausal women. Many different factors such as injury, arthritis, or grinding of the teeth can lead to the disintegration of or damage to the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which leads to TMD, although the root cause is not always clear. A type of temporomandibular disorder, TMD can result in chronic pain in the jaw and ears, create difficulty eating and talking, and even cause occasional locking of the joint, making it difficult to open or close one’s mouth. Surgery is often considered a last resort because the results are often short-lasting or even dangerous.
The state of TMD treatment may change with the publication of a study in Science Translational Medicine. With contributions from researchers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), UC Davis, and the University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston, this new study has successfully implanted engineered discs made from rib cartilage cells into a TMJ model. The biological properties of the discs are similar enough to native TMJ cells to more fully reduce further degeneration of the joint as well as potentially pave the way for regeneration of joints with TMD.
Senior author Kyriacos Athanasiou, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering at UCI, states the next steps for the team of researchers include a long-term study to ensure ongoing effectiveness and safety of the implants followed by eventual clinical trials. In the long run, this technique may also prove useful and relevant to the treatment of other types of arthritis and joint dysfunction.
Advances in Autism Research
Currently, diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has been limited entirely to clinical observation and examination by medical professionals. This makes the early identification and treatment of ASD difficult as most children cannot be accurately diagnosed until around the age of four, delaying the treatment they might receive. A recent study published in the journal of Bioengineering & Translational Medicine, however, suggests that new blood tests may be able to identify ASD with a high level of accuracy, increasing the early identification that is key to helping autistic children and their families. The researchers, led by Juergen Hahn, PhD, Professor and Department Head of Biomedical Engineering at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, hope that after clinical trials this blood test will become commercially available.
In addition to work that shows methods to detect autism earlier, the most recent issue of Nature Biomedical Engineering includes a study to understand the possible causes of autism and, in turn, develop treatments for the disease. The breakthrough technology of Cas9 enzymes allowed researchers to edit the genome, correcting for symptoms that appeared in mice which resembled autism, including exaggerated and repetitive behaviors. This advance comes from a team at the University of California, Berkeley, which developed the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR-Gold to treat symptoms of ASD by injecting the Cas9 enzyme into the brain without the need for viral delivery. The UC Berkeley researchers suggest in the article’s abstract that these safe gene-editing technologies “may revolutionize the treatment of neurological diseases and the understanding of brain function.” These treatments may have practical benefits for the understanding and treatment of such diverse conditions as addiction and epilepsy as well as ASD.
Penn Professor’s Groundbreaking Bioengineering Technology
Our own D. Kacy Cullen, PhD, was recently featured in Penn Today for his groundbreaking research which has led to the first implantable tissue-engineered brain pathways. This technology could lead to the reversal of certain neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease.
With three patents, at least eight published papers, $3.3 million in funding, and a productive go with the Penn Center for Innovation’s I-Corps program this past fall, Dr. Cullen is ready to take this project’s findings to the next level with the creation of a brand new startup company: Innervace. “It’s really surreal to think that I’ve been working on this project, this approach, for 10 years now,” he says. “It really was doggedness to just keep pushing in the lab, despite the challenges in getting extramural funding, despite the skepticism of peer reviewers. But we’ve shown that we’re able to do it, and that this is a viable technology.” Several Penn bioengineering students are involved in the research conducted in Dr. Cullen’s lab, including doctoral candidate Laura Struzyna and recent graduate Kate Panzer, who worked in the lab all four years of her undergraduate career.
In addition to his appointment as a Research Associate Professor of Neurosurgery at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Cullen also serves as a member of Penn’s Department of Bioengineering Graduate Group Faculty, and will teach the graduate course BE 502 (From Lab to Market Place) for the BE Department this fall 2018 semester. He also serves as the director for the Center of Neurotrauma, Neurodegeneration, and Restoration at the VA Medical Center.
New Prosthetics Will Have the Ability to Feel Pain
New research from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) has found a way to address one of the difficult aspects of amputation: the inability for prosthetic limbs to feel. This innovative electronic dermis is worn over the prosthetic, and can detect sensations (such as pain or even a light touch), which are conveyed to the user’s nervous system, closing mimicking skin. The findings of this study were recently published in the journal ScienceRobotics.
While one might wonder at the value of feeling pain, both researchers and amputees verify that physical sensory reception is important both for the desired realism of the prosthetic or bionic limb, and also to alert the wearer of any potential harm or damage, the same way that heat can remind a person to remove her hand from a hot surface, preventing a potential burn. Professor Nitish Thakor, PhD, and his team hope to make this exciting new technology readily available to amputees.
People and Places
Women are still vastly outnumbered in STEM, making up only twenty percent of the field, and given the need for diversification, researchers, educators, and companies are brainstorming ways to proactively solve this problem by promoting STEM subjects to young women. One current initiative has been spearheaded by GE Healthcare and Milwaukee School of Engineering University (MSOE) who are partnering to give middle school girls access to programs in engineering during their summer break at the MSOE Summer STEM Camp, hoping to reduce the stigma of these subjects for young women. GE Girls also hosts STEM programs with a number of institutions across the U.S.
The National Science Policy Network (NSPN) “works to provide a collaborative resource portal for early-career scientists and engineers involved in science policy, diplomacy, and advocacy.” The NSPN offers platforms and support including grant funding, internships, and competitions. Chaired and led by emerging researchers and professors from around the country, including biomedical engineering PhD student Michaela Rikard of the University of Virginia, the NSPN seeks to provide a network for young scientists in the current political climate in which scientific issues and the very importance of the sciences as a whole are hotly contested and debated by politicians and the public. The NSPN looks to provide a way for scientists to have a voice in policy-making. This new initiative was recently featured in the Scientific American.
Upon its original founding in 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has included the eradication of malaria as part of its mission, pledging around $2 billion to the cause in the years since. One of its most recent initiatives is the funding of a bioengineering project which targets the type of mosquitoes which carry the deadly disease. Engineered mosquitoes (so-called “Friendly Mosquitoes”) would mate in the wild, passing on a mosquito-killing gene to their female offspring (only females bite humans) before they reach maturity. While previous versions of “Friendly Mosquitoes” have been met with success, concerns have been raised about the potential long-term ecological effects to the mosquito population. UK-based partner Oxitec expects to have the new group ready for trials in two years.
We’ve talked before at this site about the difficulty involved in implanting devices in the brain. One chief problem is that any implant to record brain signals causes small amounts of damage that causes signal quality to deteriorate over time. One approach to overcoming this problem uses flexible materials that can move with brain tissue movement, rather than resisting the movement to cause damage.
One of the more recent designs was inspired by an NPR report on mosquitoes. Dr. Andrew Shoffstall, a postdoc in the lab of Jeffrey Capadona, PhD, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), saw the report and used the mechanism that mosquitoes use when biting people to design a new device, which the CWRU team describes in an article in Scientific Reports.
The authors studied the buckling force when mosquitoes puncture the skin, using this design to invent new microneedles for brain implant recordings. The group fashioned a 3D-printed plastic device to mimic the process used by the mosquito. They tested the device, first mechanically and then in rat brains, finding that the device could successfully implant a microelectrode in 8 out of 8 trials. Certainly the device will require much more rigorous testing, but if successful, it could change the way implants are inserted into human patients.
Big News About Small Things
Speaking of implants, they continue to decrease in size. Scientists at Stanford University created a wireless device that is the size of a rice grain. Reporting in IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Circuits and Systems, the scientists, led by Amin Arbabian, PhD, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford, and including Dr. Felicity Gore, a postdoc in the Department of Bioengineering, describe the design and fabrication of this implant. The implant was designed to stimulate peripheral nerves using either platinum electrodes connected directly to the nerve or light from a blue LED to stimulate optogenetic channels expressed in the neurons. The group conducted an in vivo experiment, using the device to stimulate the sciatic nerve of a frog, and they showed the device’s feasibility. Powered by ultrasound transmitted through the skin, the device has no external wire connections. The size of the implant, combined with its ability to target single nerves, could revolutionize how pain is treated, among other applications.
Meanwhile, here at Penn, the creation of very small things is getting a very big boost. In a new collaboration among schools and centers, the university’s Center for Targeted Therapeutics and Translational Nanomedicine has established the Chemical and Nanoparticle Synthesis Core (CNSC). The director, Andrew Tsourkas, PhD, is a Professor in the Department of Bioengineering and the Undergraduate Chair. The mission of the CNSC is to provide a concierge level service for Penn faculty interested in synthesizing new molecules for therapy development, as well as new nanoparticles for advanced diagnostics.
A Leap Forward With Stem Cells
Over the last decade, stem cell research has resulted in significant contributions to medical science. One application is the modeling of organs and organ systems for studies before in vivo investigations. However, stem cell projects involving the heart have been limited by the inability to get these cells to a mature state.
However, in a letter published in Nature, researchers at Columbia University and the University of Minho in Portugal describe how they used electrical and mechanical stimulation of human induced pluripotent stem cells to create more mature cells. The authors, led by Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, PhD, University Professor and Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Medical Sciences at Columbia, describe how, after four weeks of culturing under the described conditions, the cells displayed multiple characteristics of maturity, although some electromechanical properties of mature cells remained lacking. These findings show that engineering the physical environment that surrounds cells during development is a key factor for the engineering design of replacement tissue.
Individualizing First Aid
Personalized medicine has begun to affect the way that doctors treat several diseases with genetic bases, notably cancer. However, first aid has lagged a bit behind in personalization, in part because the urgency of first aid care emphasizes fast, practical solutions that work for everyone. However, in a presentation at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute last month, Jonathan Gerstenhaber, PhD, Assistant Professor of Instruction in the Department of Bioengineering at Temple University, demonstrated a prototype device that uses 3D printing technology to produce personalized bandages when they are needed.
Dr. Gersternhaber created a 3D printer that will print bandages directly onto the skin of the patient. Customizing the fit of the bandage with the printing technology would make them last longer, and the ‘on demand’ production of the bandage provides a chance to individualize the bandage design even in the urgent care setting. The device uses electrospinning technology to create bandages from soy protein, which, as a natural substance, can actually speed healing. Having completed the prototype, Dr. Gerstenhaber has moved onto portable models, as well as a larger device that can make bandages across a larger surface area.
Solving Two Problems in Glaucoma Care
Glaucoma is one of the earliest medical uses for cannabis, commonly known as marijuana. The cannabinoids in the cannabis plan have the effect of lowering intraocular pressure, which is the primary mechanism underlying glaucoma. However, the intoxicating effects of cannabis pose a problem for many patients. Thus, most patients still rely on eyedrops containing other drugs. Getting the dosage correct with eyedrops is tricky, however, because of the continual blinking and tearing of the eye.
Now, in a new article published in Drug Delivery and Translational Research, a team of researchers led by Vikramaditya G. Yadav, PhD, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of British Columbia, describes how they developed a nanoparticle hydrogel medication to deliver a cannabinoid. The authors tested the gel in situ, with good results. The authors imagine that such a gel could be used by patients at bedtime, and during the night, the drug would be dispensed by the gel and be gone by morning.
We’ve known for many years that exercise is good for you, but it was less clear how muscle strength and stamina were assembled at the molecular level. Based the principle that the health of mitochondria – a key organelle within the muscle cell – regulates muscle health, recent work identifies some of the key signaling pathways in vivo that can switch a cell between degrading damaged mitochondria or creating new mitochondria. Zhen Yan, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Virginia, used a fluorescent reporter gene (MitoTimer) to “report back” the information for individual mitochondria in muscle cells prior to and following exercise. The results reported in a recent issue of Nature Communications show very clearly that mitochondria can switch a muscle cell’s fate. Dr. Yan’s research team identified a new signaling pathway within skeletal muscle that is essential to mitophagy. Knowledge of this pathway could help to develop a variety of therapies for diseases of the muscles or damage to the muscles due to injury.
Understanding How the Brain Processes Visual Data
As a model for how the brain “computes” the information surrounding all of us, researchers have studied how visual information is processed by the brain. One method for investigating this question is the use of artificial neural networks to recognize visual information that they have previously “seen.” A recent article in Cerebral Cortex details how a team at Purdue University, led by Zhongming Liu, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Biomedical Engineering, used an artificial neural network to predict and decode information obtained with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). By collecting fMRI brain activation data when people watch movies, the artificial neural network could generate feature maps that strongly resembled the objects depicted by the initial stimuli. Available now in open access format, the team at Purdue intends to repeat these experiments with more complex networks and more detailed imaging modalities
Preventing Prosthesis-related Infection
Prostheses have improved by leaps and bounds over the years, with the development of osseointegrated prostheses — which are fused directly to the existing bones — a major step in this evolution. However, these prostheses can lead to severe infections that would require the removal of the prosthesis. These problems have been seen more commonly over the last decade or so in the military, where wounded soldiers have received prostheses but suffered subsequent infections.
In a major step forward to address this issue, Mark Ehrensberger, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at SUNY Buffalo, is the principal investigator on a two-year $1.1 million grant from the Office of Naval Research in the U.S. Department of Defense, awarded for the purpose of investigating implant-related infections. Initial research by Dr. Ehrensberger, who shares the grant award with scientists from the departments of orthopaedics and microbiology and immunology, showed that delivering electrical stimulation to the site of the prosthesis could be effective. One method the team will investigate is using titanium from within the implants themselves to conduct the current to the site.
Success with this grant could mean that patients receiving prostheses show better recovery rates and much lower rates of rejection. It could also reduce the antibiotics used by such patients, which would be a welcome outcome given the increasing rates of antibiotic resistance in health care.
Bioengineering Treatments for Depression
Depression is a largely invisible illness, but it brings with it a massive burden on both the patient and society, with health care costs exceeding $200 billion per year in the U.S. alone. Different drugs are used to treat depression, but all have significant side effects. Psychotherapy also has some effectiveness, but not all patients are helped with therapy.
One promising alternative to treat depression uses transcranial magnetic stimulation, but the devices used in this treatment are often cumbersome. In response to calls to develop more accessible forms of therapy for depression, a startup company in Sweden called Flow Neuroscience has developed a wearable device that uses transcranial direct-current stimulation targeted at the left frontal lobe. The device is noninvasive and is smaller than a sun visor, and the company claims it will be relatively inexpensive (estimated at $750). Flow Neuroscience is in the process of applying for regulatory approval in the European Union.
People and Places
United Kingdom Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond has announced that the British government will provide £7 million (approximately $9.2 million) in funding to create the UK Centre for Engineering Biology, Metrology and Standards. The government is collaborating with the the Francis Crick Institute in London, with the goal of supporting startup companies in Great Britain dedicated to using engineering and the biological sciences to develop new products.
Closer to home, the Universities of Shady Grove — a partnership of nine Maryland public universities where each university provides its most heavily demanded program — have begun construction on a $162 million biomedical sciences building. The building is slated for completion in 2019 and is expected to nearly double the enrollment at Shady Grove.
Here at Penn, Adam Pardes, a current Ph.D. candidate in our own Department of Engineering, is one of the cofounders of NeuroFlow, a company developing a mobile platform to track and record biometric information obtained from wearables. NeuroFlow recently received $1.25 million in investments to continue developing its technology and ultimately bring it to market. Congratulations, Adam!
Finally, California State University, Long Beach, is our newest national BME program this fall. Burkhard Englert, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Computer Engineering and Computer Science at CSULB, heads the new program as interim chair until a permanent chair is hired.
Spina bifida is a fairly common type of birth defect caused by incomplete closure of the backbone and tissue surrounding the spinal cord. Fetal surgery can repair the defect before delivery, but this invasive surgery can lead to high risk preterm delivery.
A new material may dramatically reduce the invasiveness of surgery needed to correct spina bifida. In a new article in Macromolecular Bioscience, surgeons and bioengineers from the University of Colorado report on one of these alternatives. One of the lead authors was Daewon Park, Ph.D., assistant professor of bioengineering. Dr. Park and his colleagues developed a reverse thermal gel, which is an injectable liquid that forms a gel at higher temperatures when injected into the body. Ultimately a gel like this one could be injected at or near the spine, where it would cover the defect in a spina bifida patient, harden into a gel, and ultimately repair the defect by deploying stem cells or engineered tissue.
The research team’s most recent study indicates that their gel retained its stability in amniotic fluid and was compatible with neural tube cells. They also tested the gel in two animal models, with successful results. The gel is still far from being used in actual fetal surgery cases, but the authors will continue to test the gel under conditions increasingly similar to the human amniotic sac.
Building Better Brains
UCLA scientists have developed an improved system for generating brain structures from stem cells. The team of scientists, led by Bennett G. Novitch, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology at UCLA, report their findings in Cell Reports. Importantly, the methods used by Dr. Novitch and his colleagues fine-tuned and simplified earlier efforts in this area, developing a method that did not require any specific reactors to generate the tissue. They were also able to generate tissue resembling the basal ganglia for the first time, indicating promise for using these tissues to model diseases affecting that part of the brain, including Parkinson’s disease.
Next, the authors demonstrated the usefulness of these “organoids” in modeling damage due to Zika virus. After exposing the generated organoids to Zika, the authors measured the cellular responses of the tissue, demonstrating the ability to use these tissues to model the disease. Given the recent epidemic of Zika virus in the Western Hemisphere, which focused attention on the virus’s effects on the human brain, in addition to microcephaly and other birth defects when the disease is transmitted from pregnant mothers to their children, understanding how Zika affects the developing brain is key to determining how to prevent the damage it causes and possibly repairing it. Reliable models of brain development are necessary, and the UCLA team’s findings seem to indicate that they’ve found one.
Rebuilding Brain Circuits After Injury
Among the issues in the prevention and treatment of head injury is that we still lack complete information about the mechanism underlying these injuries. However, a key piece of basic research recently published by a team at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, demonstrates that a key aspect of this mechanism occurs in the axons, which are the stalks that grow from neurons to signal to each other. In an article published in Nature Communications, the team, led by Anne Marion Taylor, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering at UNC, reports on using microfluidics technology to determine how neurons react when axons are severed. The authors found that damage to axons causes a compensatory loss of collateral connections to neighboring neurons. This loss in connectivity could be reversed by adding a protein, netrin-1, into the solution surrounding the neurons. Although netrin-1 was already known for its importance in rebuilding damaged axons, this work showed that netrin-1 has more widespread effects in rebuilding neural circuits after trauma.
Seeing Inside the Body
One of the key problems with minimally invasive surgical procedures is difficulty in shining sufficient light in the target region to see and manipulate tissue during surgery. Glass filaments are currently used, but they pose a health risk because they can break off in the body. A new citrate polymer fiber invented by scientists at Penn State University represents a much safer alternative to glass filaments. Reporting in Biomaterials, the scientists, led by Jian Yiang, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering at Penn State, describe how they developed the fiber and show how much less likely this polymer filament is to break when manipulated. If biocompatibility tests show that this polymer does not affect tissue health, it could eventually appear in surgical microscopes and make glass filaments a thing of the past.
Creating better illumination tools is one way of seeing inside the body. An elegant device developed by a team including MIT biomedical engineer Giovanni Traverso, Ph.D., consists of a proof-of-concept ingestable sensor that attaches to the stomach lining and can provide upper gastrointestinal system information for two days. The team reports on the device in a recent issue of Nature Biomedical Engineering. Unlike earlier ingestable diagnostic devices, the sensor developed by Dr. Traverso and his colleagues uses the contraction of the gut to power the device. It also surpassed pill-sized ingestable cameras by providing data from a longer time period.
Implants That Grow With Chilren
Using implants to treat medical problems in children is difficult for one simple reason: children can quickly outgrow their devices. The problem has been particularly acute among pediatric cardiac surgeons, for whom implants are commonly used devices. Now, thanks to collaboration between surgeons and a team including Jeffrey Karp, Ph.D., a Harvard biomedical engineer, valve implants that grow with patients could be here soon. Inspired by the clever design of a Chinese finger trap, the collaborators developed an implant that grows longer but thinner over time. They report on their device in Nature Biomedical Engineering, including its proof-of-principle testing in growing piglets. Based on these data, the study authors will continue to adapt and develop the device.
Humans are especially good at listening to many voices at once or focusing on one voice in a crowded room. However, we really don’t know how we do this so well. Scientists at Imperial College London (ICL) solved part of this mystery. Reporting in eLife, the ICL authors developed a mathematical method to measure how the response to speech in a person’s brainstem changed when that person’s attention moved from one person to another. Perceptible changes in brainstem activity occurred when a person was intently listening to someone, and it disappeared when the person ignored speech. In addition to supplementing what we already know about how the brain stem participates in sensory tasks, the ICL team’s findings mean that damage to the brainstem – common to several neurological disorders – can easily affect how we process speech and interact with each other.
The human immune system deploys a variety of cells to counteract pathogens when they enter the body. B cells are a type of white blood cell specific to particular pathogens, and they form part of the adaptive immune system. As these cells develop, the cells with the strongest reactions to antigens are favored over others. This process is called clonal selection. Given the sheer number of pathogens out there, the number of different clonal lineages for B cells is estimated to be around 100 billion. A landscape like that can be difficult to navigate without a map.
Luckily, an atlas was recently published in Nature Biotechnology. It is the work of scientists collaborating between Penn’s own Perelman School of Medicine and faculty from the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems at our next-door neighbor, Drexel University. Using tissue samples from an organ donor network, the authors, led by Nina Luning Prak, MD, PhD, of Penn and Uri Heshberg, Ph.D., of Drexel, submitted the samples to a process called deep immune repertoire profiling to identify unique clones and clonal lineages. In total, they identified nearly a million lineages and mapped them to two networks: one in the gastointestinal tract and one that connects the blood, bone marrow, spleen, and lungs. This discovery suggests that the networks might be less complicated than initially thought. Also, it confirms a key role for the immune system in the gut.
Not only does this B cell atlas provide valuable information to the scientific community, but it also could serve as the basis for immune-based therapies for diseases. If we can identify these lineages and how clonal selection occurs, we could identify the most effective immunological cells and perhaps engineer them in the lab. At the very least, the extent to which scientists understand how B cells are formed and develop has received an enormous push with this research.
Understanding Muscle Movement
Natural movements of limbs require the coordinated activation of several muscle groups. Although the molecular composition of muscle is known, there remains a poor understanding of how these molecules coordinate their actions to confer power, strength, and endurance to muscle tissue. New fields of synthetic biology require this new knowledge to efficiently produce naturally inspired muscle substitutes.
Responding to this challenge, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, including Philip R. LeDuc, Ph.D., William J. Brown Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Professor of Biomedical Engineering, have developed a computational system to better understand how mixtures of specific myosins affect muscle properties. Their method, published in PNAS, uses a computer model to show that mixtures of myosins will unexpectedly produce properties that are not the average of myosin molecular properties. Instead, the myosin mixtures coordinate and complement each other at the molecular level to create emergent behaviors, which lead to a robustness in how the muscle functions across a broad range. Dr. LeDuc and his colleagues then confirmed their model in lab experiments using muscle tissue from chickens. In the future, this new computational method could be used for other types of tissue, and it could prove useful in developing treatments for a variety of disorders.
Determining Brain Connectivity
How the brain forms and keeps memories is one of the greatest challenges in neuroscience. The hippocampus is a brain region considered critical for remembering sequences and events. The connections made by the hippocampus to other brain regions is considered critical for the hippocampus to integrate and remember experiences. However, this broad connectivity of the hippocampus to other brain areas raises a critical question: What connections are essential for rewiring the brain for new memories?
To offer an explanation for this question, a team of scientists in Hong Kong published a paper in PNAS in which they report on a study conducted in rats using resting-state function MRI. The study team, led by Ed X. Wu, Ph.D., of the University of Hong Kong, found that stimulation of a region deep in the hippocampus would propagate more broadly out into many areas of the cortex. The stimulation frequency affected how far this signal propagated from the hippocampus and pointed out the ability for frequency-based information signals to selectively connect the hippocampus to the rest of the brain. Altering the frequency of stimulation could affect visual function, indicating that targeted stimulation of the brain could have widespread functional effects throughout the brain.
Although human and rodent brains are obviously different, these findings from rats offer insights into how brain connectivity emerges in general. Similar studies in humans will be needed to corroborate these findings.
Seeing Inside a Tumor
Years of research have yielded the knowledge that the most effective treatments for cancer are often individualized. Knowing the genetic mutation involved in oncogenesis, for instance, can provide important information about the right drug to treat the tumor. Another important factor to know is the tumor’s chemical makeup, but far less is known about this factor due to the limitations of imaging.
However, a new study published in Nature Communications is offering some hope in this regard. In the study, scientists led by Xueding Wang, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering and radiology at the University of Michigan, used pH-sensing nanoprobes and multiwavelength photoacoustic imaging to determine tumor types in phantoms and animals. This new technology is based on the principle that cancerous cells frequently lower the pH levels in tissue, and designing probes with properties that are pH sensitive provides a method to find tumors with imaging methods and also treat these tumors.
With this technology, Dr. Wang and his colleagues were able to obtain three-dimensional images of pH levels inside of tumors. Importantly, it allowed them to noninvasively view the changes in a dye injected inside the tumor. Although a clinical application is years away, the information obtained using the Michigan team’s techniques could add significantly to our knowledge about tumorigenesis and tumor growth.
The Role of Bacteria in MS
The growing awareness of how bacteria interact with humans to affect health has led to the emergence of new scientific areas (e.g., human microbiome). Research findings from scientists collaborating between Caltech and UCSF suggest bacteria can play a role in the onset of multiple sclerosis. These investigators include Sarkis K. Mazmanian, Ph.D., Luis B. and Nelly Soux Professor of Microbiology and a faculty member in the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering at Caltech. Reporting their research results in PNAS, the researchers found several bacteria elevated in the MS microbiome. Study results showed that these bacteria regulated adaptive immune responses and helped to create a proinflammatory milieu. The identification of the bacteria interacting with immunity in MS patients could result in better diagnosis and treatment of this disabling disease.
People and Places
Faculty members at the University of California, Irvine, including biomedical engineer Zoran Nenadic, Ph.D., have received an $8 million grant to develop a brain-computer interface. The research using this grant aims to restore function in people with spinal cord injuries. Also, at the University of Texas, Austin, the lab of Amy Brock, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, has received a three-year $180,000 R21 grant from the National Cancer Institute to develop a barcoding platform to isolate cancer cell lineages and to identify genetic targets for treatment.
Bone injuries and bone loss can constitute major challenges for patients and the people who treat them. Beyond the need for bone grafts or artificial implants in cases such as severe fractures, cancers metastasizing to the bones can be disabling and disfiguring. Doctors are able to use autologous bone grafts, in which patients are their own bone donors and provides grafts from other bones in their bodies. However, the grafting process compromises the bone from the donor site. In addition, there are specific problems in cases of long bones, such as those in the arms and legs. With these bones, no site of the body can provide sufficient material without becoming severely compromised itself due to bone loss.
Stem cells have been intensively investigated as a source of bone grafts. With their ability to produce a variety of cell lines from the same source, these cells have the potential to be used in a variety of clinical situations. The mechanisms underlying the determination of the type of cell that an individual stem cell will become are known. However, the ability to produce living bone cells in the laboratory had remained elusive – until now. In an article published online last week by Nature Biomedical Engineering, a group of scientists led in part by Professor Matthew Dalby, a cellular engineer with the Institute of Molecular, Cell and Systems Biology at the University of Glasgow, United Kingdom, reported its success.
Professor Dalby’s tissue engineering team used a nanoscale bioreactor to stimulate mesenchymal stem cells into osteogenesis (bone creation). The bioreactor applied vibrations on a microscopic scale of 1,000 hertz with 15 nanometers of vertical displacement. In their previous work, Professor Dalby and his colleagues could generate only one bone cell sample at a time. In the current paper, they showed the ability to generate multiple cells for three-dimensional tissue. In addition, they showed that the cells could be generated in environments with less rigidity than that in which osteogenesis normally occurs. This is an important advance because the body provides optimal conditions of stiffness for this process, but the lab does not. Should the techniques in the paper prove viable on a greater scale, they could revolutionize the field of bone grafting.
Microfluidics in the News
Since their introduction, organs on a chip (OOCs) have proliferated in the field of bioengineering. These chips use microfluidics technology to create a model of an organ system in the body. However, until now, OOCs have not been used to model the human placenta – the tissue that connects the embryonic sac to the uterine wall during pregnancy.
Responding to the lack of a OOC model of the placenta, two professors at Florida International University (FAU) have developed a placenta OOC. Sarah E. Du, Ph.D., assistant professor of ocean and mechanical engineering, and Andrew Oleinkov, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical science, have collaborated to create this chip, which they to intend to use to determine the effects of malaria on the placental microenvironment. A $400,000 grant from the NIH will certainly help.
With malaria causing more than 200,000 perinatal deaths annually, beyond the burden we cited last week, there is an urgent need to determine the exact effects of this parasitic infection on the placenta. Without this knowledge, the development of technologies to mitigate or even prevent these effects will be much more difficult. In addition, because of the obvious ethical constraints on prospective testing in natural history studies, the placenta OOC offers an ideal model.
Elsewhere in the field of microfluidics, an NIH grant to scientists at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, has gone toward the development of a new test chip to detect sepsis, a condition in which the body’s reaction to infection results in inflammation of the blood vessels and which can cause lethal shock unless detected and treated promptly. The UIUC team developing this more rapid diagnostic technology is led by Rashid Bashir, Ph.D., professor of bioengineering and associate dean of UIUC’s Carle Illinois College of Medicine. Dr. Bashir was lead author on a paper published over the summer in Nature Communications.
Among the more remarkable aspects of the chip developed by Professor Bashir and his colleagues is that it can diagnose sepsis with a single drop of blood. Therefore, in addition to the device’s portability and size, which allows it to be used at the point of care, it is only necessary to use 10 microliters of blood to complete the test. Other available lab tests for sepsis can require as much as 300 times as much blood. Testing its device against the gold standard of flow cytometry, the UIUC team found that the findings obtained with its biochip were strongly correlated with those from flow cytometry. Unlike the new chip, flow cytometry cannot be performed outside the lab.
Since a large proportion of sepsis patients are treated in intensive care units, the ICU is a likely setting in which the biochip could be used, particularly because some ICUs might be in hospitals where the staff does not have 24-hour lab access. The ability to use this chip at the bedside immediately, rather than waiting until the next morning or longer, could make a key difference in detecting and treating sepsis.
Brains on the Internet
For years, Ray Kurzweil, the computer scientist turned author and inventor, has been discussing a future in which, he claims, the distinction between human and artificial intelligence will disappear. For example, Kurweil imagines brains being uploaded to computers. While what Kurzeil imagines has yet to materialize, scientists in South Africa have created the “Brainternet,” which streams brain waves onto the Internet in real time.
As a student project at the School of Electrical and Information Engineering of the University of Witerstand in Johannesburg led by Adam Pantanowitz, a lecturer in the school, the Brainternet was developed from pre-existing technology. The project starts with portable electroencephalography (EEG), which is worn by the subject and which transmits its signal by telemetry to a Raspberry Pi computer. Then, using open source software, the computer live streams the data to an application programming interface, which in turn allows the data to be published at a website accessible to others.
Beyond being an innovative use of these technologies, the Brainternet could be used in telemedicine applications. For instance, it could be helpful in situations where a specialist neurologist is not in the immediate geographic vicinity. Moreover, for research projects involving EEG measurement during tasks or under certain types of external stimulation, the Brainternet could allow for a much larger sample size to be enrolled, owing to its portability and use of the Internet.
People and Places
Dawn Elliott, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Delaware, has been elected president of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), for which she had served as treasurer. Dr. Elliott’s term as president will begin in October 2018 and last for two years. As president, she plans to take a closer look at education in the field to determine how bioengineering and biomedical engineering departments can graduate the most successful students. We wish her the best of luck and hearty congratulations.