Week in BioE (August 18, 2017)

An embryonic stem cell

SynBio News

Synthetic biology (SynBio) is an important field within bioengineering. Now, SynBio and its relationships with nanotechnology and microbiology will get a big boost with a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation awarded to the lab of Jason Gleghorn, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Delaware. The grant, which comes from the NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, will fund research to determine the interactions between a single virus and single microbe, using microfluidics technology so that the lab staff can examine the interactions in tiny droplets of fluid, rather than using pipettes and test tubes. They believe their research could impact healthcare broadly, as well as perhaps help agriculture by increasing crop yields.

While must SynBio research is medical, the technology is now also being used in making commercial products that will compete with other natural or chemically synthesized products. Antony Evans’s company Taxa Biotechnologies has developed a fragrant moss that he hopes can compete against the sprays and other chemicals you see on the store shelves. Using SynBio principles, Taxa isolates the gene in plants causing odor and transplants these genes to a simple moss in a glass terrarium that, with sufficient sunlight, water, carbon dioxide, will provide one of three scents completely naturally. Technically, the mosses are genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but since people aren’t eating them, they aren’t likely to generate the controversy raised by GMO foods. Taxa has also been working on transplanting bioluminescence genes to plants to provide light without requiring electricity, all as a part of a larger green campaign.

A Few Good Brains

A division of the U.S. Department of Defense, the Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT) program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will fund the research of Stephen Helms Tillery, Ph.D., of the School of Biological & Health Systems Engineering at Arizona State University, who is investigating methods of enhancing cognitive performance using external stimulation. The ASU project is using transdermal electrical neuromodulation to apply electrical stimulation via electrodes placed on the scalp to determine the effects on awareness and concentration. DARPA hopes to obtain insight into how to improve decision making among troops who are actively deployed. The high-stress environment of a military deployment, combined with the fact that soldiers tend to get suboptimal amounts of sleep, leaves them with fatigue that can cloud judgment in moments of life or death. If the DARPA can find a way to alleviate that fatigue and clarify decision-making processes, it would likely save lives.

Circulatory Science

End-stage organ failure can be treated by transplantation, but waiting lists are long and the number of donors still insufficient, so alternatives are continually sought. In the field of regenerative medicine, which is partly dedicated to finding alternatives, scientists at Ohio State have developed a technology called tissue nanotransfection, which can generate any cell type within a patient’s own body. In a paper published in Nature Nanotechnology, professors Chandan Sen and James Lee and their research team describe how they used nanochip technology to reprogram skin cells into vascular cells. After injecting these cells into the injured legs and brains of mice and pigs, they found the cells could help to restore blood flow. The applications to organ systems is potentially limitless.

For cardiac patients whose conditions can be treated without need for a transplant, who make up the vast majority of this cohort,  stents and valve prostheses are crucial tools. However, these devices and the procedures to implant them have high complication rates. Currently, patients receiving prosthetic valves made in part of metal must take blood thinners to prevent clots, and these drugs can greatly diminish quality of life and limit activity, particularly in younger patients. At Cornell, Jonathan Butcher, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering, is developing a prosthetic heart valve with small niches in the material loaded with biomaterials to maintain normal heart function and prevent clotting. While it has been possible for some time to coat the surface of an implant with a drug or chemical to facilitate its integration and function, these niches allow for a larger depot of such a material to be distributed over a longer period of time, increasing the durability of the positive effects of these procedures.

Smartphone Spectrometry

A number of medical diagnoses are accomplished by testing of bodily fluids, and spectrometry is a key technology in this process. However, spectrometers are expensive and usually not very portable, posing a challenge for health professionals working outside of traditional care settings. Now, a team led by Brian Cunningham, Ph.D., from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, has published in Lab on a Chip a paper detailing their creation of a smartphone-integrated spectroscope. Called the spectral Transmission-Reflectance-Intensity (TRI)-Analyzer, it uses microfluidics technology to provide point-of-care analysis to facilitate treatment decisions. The authors liken it to a Swiss army knife in terms of versatility and stress that the TRI Analyzer is less a specialized device than a mobile laboratory. The device costs $550, which is several times less than common lab-based instruments.

New Chair at Stanford

Stanford’s Department of Bioengineering has announced that Jennifer Cochran, Ph.D., will begin a five-year term as department chair beginning on September 1. Dr. Cochran arrived at Stanford in 2005 after earning degrees at the University of Delaware and MIT. Cochran has two connections to Penn – she is currently serving as a member of our department advisory board and completed her postdoctoral training in Penn Medicine. Our heartiest congratulations to her!