The award recognizes faculty who are conducting some of the most innovative and impactful studies in the field of biomedical engineering. Recipients will present their research and be officially recognized at the BMES Annual Meeting in October.
Mitchell is being honored for creating an RNA nanoparticle therapy that stops the spread of the deadly bone marrow cancer multiple myeloma and helps to eliminate it altogether. Known for being difficult to treat, the disease kills over 100,000 people every year.
“We urgently need innovative, effective therapies against this cancer,” Mitchell says. “The nanotechnology we developed can potentially serve as a platform to treat multiple myeloma and other bone marrow-based malignancies.”
Mitchell, along with Christian Figuerora-Espada, a doctoral student in Bioengineering, previously published a study in PNAS describing how their RNA nanoparticle therapy stops multiple myeloma from moving through the blood vessels and mutating. In their current paper in Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering, which expands upon this RNA nanoparticle platform, they show that inhibition of both multiple myeloma migration and adhesion to bone marrow blood vessels, combined with an FDA-approved multiple myeloma therapeutic, extends survival in a mouse model of multiple myeloma.
CAR T cell therapy pioneer Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies (CCI) at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, has been named a winner of the 2024 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for the development of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell immunotherapy, a revolutionary cancer treatment approach in which each patient’s T cells are modified to target and kill their cancer cells. The invention sparked a new path in cancer care, harnessing the power of patients’ own immune systems, a once-elusive goal that brought fresh options for those who could not be successfully treated with conventional approaches.
Founded in 2012, the Breakthrough Prizes are the world’s largest science awards, with $3 million awarded for each of the five main prize categories. June is the sixth Breakthrough Prize laureate from Penn, which joins Harvard and MIT among the institutions whose researchers have been honored with the most Breakthrough Prizes.
“This award is not only a testament to Dr. June’s outstanding contributions to science, but also a shining example of the caliber of discoveries and research which Penn faculty set their sights upon,” said Penn President Liz Magill. “We are immensely proud to have Dr. June as a member of the Penn academic community, and we know that CAR T cell therapy is just the first chapter in an inspiring and lifesaving new era of medicine.”
June is internationally recognized for his role in pioneering the CAR T cell therapy, which led to the first FDA-approved personalized cellular therapy, for children and young adults with the blood cancer known as acute lymphoblastic leukemia, in August of 2017—a step which has spurred five additional approvals of the technique in other blood cancers. June joined Penn in 1999, building momentum for Penn to become a global hub for cell and gene therapy. Gene-modified T cells engineered in June’s lab to retrain a patient’s own immune cells to attack cancer were used in the first clinical trial of CAR T cell therapy in 2010. Some of the earliest children and adults treated have experienced long-lasting remissions of 10 years or more. In addition to the FDA approvals that have made the therapy commercially available to patients across the world, thousands more have benefited from clinical trials testing these transformative treatments, including for the treatment of solid tumors and even autoimmune diseases like lupus.
“Dr. June’s tireless commitment to advancing T cell immunotherapy research has been life-changing for many patients affected by cancer, who have lived longer, fuller lives, thanks to the discoveries made in his lab,” said J. Larry Jameson,executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and dean of the Perelman School of Medicine. “We are proud to see one of Penn’s most esteemed scientists recognized for the impact of his foundational work to develop a new class of cancer immunotherapy treatment.”
In recent years, cancer researchers have hailed the arrival of chimeric antigen receptor T cell (CAR T) therapy, which has delivered promising results, transforming the fight against various forms of cancer. The process involves modifying patients’ T-cells to target cancer cells, resulting in remarkable success rates for previously intractable forms of cancer.
Six CAR T cell therapies have secured FDA approval, and several more are in the pipeline. However, these therapies come with severe and potentially lethal side effects, namely cytokine release syndrome (CRS) and neurotoxicity. These drawbacks manifest as a range of symptoms—from high fever and vomiting to multiple organ failure and patient death—posing significant challenges to broader clinical application.
“Addressing CRS and neurotoxicity without compromising the therapeutic effectiveness of CAR T cells has been a complex challenge,” says Mitchell.
He says that unwanted interactions between CAR T and immune cells called macrophages drive the overactivation of macrophages, which in turn result in the release of toxic cytokines that lead to CRS and neurotoxicity.
“Controlling CAR T-macrophage interactions in vivo is difficult,” Mitchell says. “So, our study introduces a materials engineering-based strategy that involves incorporating a sugar molecule onto the surface of CAR T cells. These sugars are then used as a reactive handle to create a biomaterial coating around these cells directly in the body, which acts as a ‘suit of armor,’ preventing dangerous interactions with macrophages.”
First author Ningqiang Gong, a postdoctoral researcher in the Mitchell Lab, elaborates on the technique, “We attached this sugar molecule to the CAR T cells using metabolic labeling. This modification enables the CAR T cells to attack cancer cells without any hindrance.”
“When symptoms of CRS begin to manifest, we introduce another molecule—polyethylene glycol (PEG)—to create the suit of armor, which effectively blocks dangerous interactions between these engineered T cells, macrophages, and the tumor cells themselves,” Gong says.
For most of modern medicine, cancer drugs have been developed the same way: by designing molecules to treat diseased cells. With the advent of immunotherapy, that changed. For the first time, scientists engineered patients’ own immune systems to recognize and attack diseased cells.
One of the best examples of this pioneering type of medicine is CAR T cell therapy. Invented in the Perelman School of Medicine by Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy, CAR T cell therapy works by collecting T cells from a patient, modifying those cells in the lab so that they are designed to destroy cancerous cells, and reinfusing them into the patient. June’s research led to the first FDA approval for this type of therapy, in 2017. Six different CAR T cell therapies are now approved to treat various types of blood cancers. Carl June, at the flash mob celebration of the FDA approval of the CAR T cell therapy he developed, in August 2017. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine Magazine)
CAR T cell therapy holds the potential to help millions more patients—if it can be successfully translated to other conditions. June and colleagues, including Daniel Baker, a fourth-year doctoral student in the Cell and Molecular Biology department, discuss this potential in a perspective published in Nature.
In the piece, June and Baker highlight other diseases that CAR T cell therapy could be effective.
“CAR T cell therapy has been remarkably successful for blood cancers like leukemias and lymphomas. There’s a lot of work happening here at Penn and elsewhere to push it to other blood cancers and to earlier stage disease, so patients don’t have to go through chemo first,” June says. “Another big priority is patients with solid tumors because they make up the vast majority of cancer patients. Beyond cancer, we’re seeing early signs that CAR T cell therapy could work in autoimmune diseases, like lupus.”
As for which diseases to pursue as for possible future treatment, June says, “essentially it boils down to two questions: Can we identify a population of cells that are bad? And can we target them specifically? Whether that’s asthma or chronic diseases or lupus, if you can find a bad population of cells and get rid of them, then CAR T cells could be therapeutic in that context.”
“What’s exciting is it’s not just theoretical at this point. There have been clinical reports in other autoimmune diseases, including myasthenia gravis and inflammatory myopathy,” Baker says. “But we are seeing early evidence that CAR T cell therapy will be successful beyond cancer. And it’s really opening the minds of people in the field to think about how else we could use CAR T. For example, there’s some pioneering work at Penn from the Epstein lab for heart failure. The idea is that you could use CAR T cells to get rid of fibrotic tissue after a cardiac injury, and potentially restore the damage following a heart attack.”
Baker adds, “there’s no question that over the last decade, CAR T cell therapy has revolutionized cancer. I’m hoping to play a role in bringing these next generation therapies to patients and make a real impact over the next decade. I think there’s potential for cell therapy to be a new pillar of medicine at large, and not just a new pillar of oncology.”
When we hear about gut bacteria, we may think about probiotics and supplements marketed to help with digestion, about how taking antibiotics might affect our intestinal tract, or perhaps about trendy diets that aim to improve gut health.
But two researchers at Penn Medicine think that understanding the microbiome, the entirety of microbial organisms associated with the human body, might be the key to deciphering the fundamental mechanisms that make our bodies work. They think these microbes may work like a call center switchboard, making connections to help different organs, biological systems, and the brain communicate. Maayan Levy, and Christoph Thaiss, both assistant professors of microbiology at the Perelman School of Medicine, argue that the microbiome is instrumental to revealing how signals from the gastrointestinal tract are received by the rest of the body—which may hold the key to understanding inter-organ communication in general. Perelman School of Medicine’s Maayan Levy, and Christoph Thaiss. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine News)
While the gut sends signals to all parts of the body to initiate various biological processes, the mechanisms underlying this communication—and communication between different organs involved in these processes—is relatively unknown.
“The more we learn about the role the microbiome plays in a wide range of diseases— from cancer to neurodegenerative diseases to inflammatory diseases—the more important it becomes to understand what exactly its role is,” says Thaiss. “And hopefully once we understand how it works, we can use the microbiome to treat these diseases.”
Levy and Thaiss joined the faculty at Penn Medicine after completing their graduate studies in 2018. Here, they continue to investigate the role of the microbiome in various biological processes.
In his lab, Thaiss focuses on the impact of the microbiome on the brain. He recently identified species of gut-dwelling bacteria that activate nerves in the gut to promote the desire to exercise. Most recently, Thaiss published a study that identified the cells that communicate psychological stress signals from the brain to the gastrointestinal tract, and cause symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease.
Meanwhile, in her lab, Levy examines how the microbiome influences the development of diseases, like cancer, and other conditions throughout the body.
A recent publication authored by Levy suggested that the ketogenic diet (high fat, low carbohydrate) causes the production of a metabolite called beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), that suppresses colorectal cancer in small animal models.
Now, Levy is collaborating with Bryson Katona, an assistant professor of Medicine in the division of gastroenterology who specializes in gastrointestinal cancers, to investigate whether BHB has the same effect in patients with Lynch syndrome, which causes individuals to have a genetic predisposition to many different kinds of cancer, including colon cancer. These efforts are part of a growing emphasis at Penn on finding methods to intercept cancer in its earliest stages.
“It’s remarkable that we were able to quickly take the findings from our animal models and rapidly design a clinical trial,” Levy says. “One of the most exciting aspects of our work is not only making discoveries about how our bodies work on a biological level, but then being able to work with the world’s leading clinical experts to translate these discoveries into therapies for patients.”
Further, studies led by Levy and Thaiss often utilize human samples and data from the Penn Medicine BioBank, to validate animal model findings in the tissue of human patients suffering from the diseases which they are investigating.
While Levy and Thaiss pursue different research interests with their labs, they also collaborate often, building on their previous research into what the microbiome does, and its role in the biological processes that keep us healthy. Their long-term goal is to learn about the mechanisms by which the gastrointestinal tract influences disease processes in other organs to treat various diseases of the body using the gastrointestinal tract as a noninvasive entry point to the body.
“Some of the most common and devastating diseases in humans—like cancer or neurodegeneration—are difficult to treat because they are no existing therapies that can reach the brain,” says Thaiss. “If we can understand how the gastrointestinal tract interacts with other organs in the body, including the brain, we might be able to develop treatments that ‘send messages’ to these organs through the body’s natural communication pathways.”
“Obviously there is a lot more basic biology to be uncovered before we get there,” adds Levy. “Most importantly, we want to map all the different routes by which the gastrointestinal tract interacts with the body, and how that communication happens.”
A research team led by engineers at the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern University scientists has created a new synthetic biology approach, or a “QR code for cancer cells,” to follow tumor cells over time, finding there are meaningful differences in why a cancer cell dies or survives in response to anti-cancer therapies.
Remarkably, what fate cancer cells choose after months of therapy is “entirely predictable” based on seemingly small, yet important, differences that appear even before treatment begins. The researchers also discovered the reason is not genetics, contrary to beliefs held in the field.
The study outlined the team’s new technology platform that developed a QR code for each of the millions of cells for scientists to find and use later — much like tagging swans in a pond. The QR code directs researchers to a genome-wide molecular makeup of these cells and provides information about how they’ve reacted to cancer treatment.
“We think this work stands to really change how we think about therapy resistance,” said Arjun Raj, co-senior author and Professor in Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania. “Rather than drug-resistant cells coming in just one flavor, we show that even in highly controlled conditions, different ‘flavors’ can emerge, raising the possibility that each of these flavors may need to be treated individually.”
In the study, the lab and collaborators sought to apply synthetic biology tools to answer a key question in cancer research: What makes certain tumors come back a few months or years after therapy? In other words, could the lab understand what causes some rare cells to develop therapeutic resistance to a drug?
“There are many ways cells become different from each other,” said Yogesh Goyal, the co-senior author at Northwestern University. “Our lab asks, how do individual cells make decisions? Understanding this in the context of cancer is all the more exciting because there’s a clinically relevant dichotomy: A cell dies or becomes resistant when faced with therapies.”
Using the interdisciplinary team, the scientists put the before-and-after cloned cells through a whole genome sequencing pipeline to compare the populations and found no systematic underlying genetic mutations to investigate the hypothesis. Raj and Goyal helped develop the QR code framework, FateMap, that could identify each unique cell that seemed to develop resistance to drug therapy. “Fate” refers to whether a cell dies or survives (and if so, how), and the scientists “map” the cells across their lifespan, prior to and following anti-cancer therapy. FateMap is the result of work from several research institutions, and it applies an amalgamation of concepts spanning several disciplines, including synthetic biology, genome engineering, bioinformatics, machine learning and thermodynamics.
“Some are different by chance — just as not all leaves on a tree look the same — but we wanted to determine if that matters,” Goyal said. “The cell biology field has a hard time defining if differences have meaning.”
Rather than being the single disease class many people refer to, “cancer” is a blanket term that covers more than 100 distinct diseases, many of which have little in common aside from originating with rapidly dividing cells. Since different cancers demand different treatments, it follows that any given new therapy emerging from any institution would be likely to be a new cancer treatment.
But why so many in just this five-year period?
The volume of new cancer treatments makes sense, says Abramson Cancer Center (ACC) director Robert Vonderheide, attributing the flurry of new cancer drug approvals to a recent “explosion” in knowledge about cancer biology.
“Much of that knowledge is about the immune system’s ability to attack cancer, which people seriously doubted until about 20 years ago. As soon as we had a clinical validation for this Achilles heel in cancer, the dam burst for ideas about other ways to exploit that vulnerability to come forward,” he says. “The first drug that came out to activate the immune system inspired the rest of the field to find the next drug, and the one after that. We as a field have moved from serendipity and empiricism to science-driven drug design.”
The first CAR T cell therapy approval invigorated Penn faculty interested in finding new ways to harness the immune system to fight cancer.
“An approval like that makes what you’re working on more of a reality,” says Avery Posey, an assistant professor of systems pharmacology and translational therapeutics in the Perelman School of Medicine, whose lab team spends much of its time trying to identify more specific antigens for solid tumors and also studies ways to optimize engineered donor T cells. “It brings a new perspective, showing that your work is more than basic research and can actually become drugs that impact patients’ lives. That’s a real motivator to keep pushing forward.”
Honing new immunotherapies is a priority among Penn researchers, but not every recently approved new cancer treatment or detection tool developed at the institution engages the immune system. Faculty have explored and introduced widely varying approaches to improving the standard of care for cancer patients.
Multiple myeloma is an incurable bone marrow cancer that kills over 100,000 people every year. Known for its quick and deadly spread, this disease is one of the most challenging to address. As these cancer cells move through different parts of the body, they mutate, outpacing possible treatments. People diagnosed with severe multiple myeloma that is resistant to chemotherapy typically survive for only three to six months. Innovative therapies are desperately needed to prevent the spread of this disease and provide a fighting chance for those who suffer from it.
By silencing the molecular pathway that prevents macrophages from attacking our own cells, Penn Engineers have manipulated these white blood cells to eliminate solid tumors.
Cancer remains one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. at over 600,000 deaths per year. Cancers that form solid tumors such as in the breast, brain or skin are particularly hard to treat. Surgery is typically the first line of defense for patients fighting solid tumors. But surgery may not remove all cancerous cells, and leftover cells can mutate and spread throughout the body. A more targeted and wholistic treatment could replace the blunt approach of surgery with one that eliminates cancer from the inside using our own cells.
Dennis Discher, Robert D. Bent Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Bioengineering, and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, and postdoctoral fellow, Larry Dooling, provide a new approach in targeted therapies for solid tumor cancers in their study, published in Nature Biomedical Engineering. Their therapy not only eliminates cancerous cells, but teaches the immune system to recognize and kill them in the future.
“Due to a solid tumor’s physical properties, it is challenging to design molecules that can enter these masses,” says Discher. “Instead of creating a new molecule to do the job, we propose using cells that ‘eat’ invaders – macrophages.”
Macrophages, a type of white blood cell, immediately engulf and destroy – phagocytize – invaders such as bacteria, viruses, and even implants to remove them from the body. A macrophage’s innate immune response teaches our bodies to remember and attack invading cells in the future. This learned immunity is essential to creating a kind of cancer vaccine.
But, a macrophage can’t attack what it can’t see.
“Macrophages recognize cancer cells as part of the body, not invaders,” says Dooling. “To allow these white blood cells to see and attack cancer cells, we had to investigate the molecular pathway that controls cell-to-cell communication. Turning off this pathway – a checkpoint interaction between a protein called SIRPa on the macrophage and the CD47 protein found on all ‘self’ cells – was the key to creating this therapy.”
Multiple members in the biophysical engineering lab lead by Dennis Discher, including co-lead author and postdoctoral fellow and Penn Bioengineering alumnus Jason Andrechak and Bioengineering Ph.D. student Brandon Hayes, contributed to this study. The research was funded by grants from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Cancer Institute, including the Physical Sciences Oncology Network, of the US National Institutes of Health.
They will conduct research, pursue graduate degrees, or teach English in Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, Denmark, Ecuador, Estonia, France, Germany, Guatemala, India, Israel, Latvia, Mexico, Nepal, New Zealand, the West Bank-Palestine territories, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Thailand.
The Fulbright Program is the United States government’s flagship international educational exchange program, awarding grants to fund as long as 12 months of international experience.
Among the Penn Fulbright grant recipients for 2023-24 is Ella Atsavapranee, from Cabin John, Maryland, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from the School of Engineering and Applied Science and a minor in chemistry from the College. She was offered a Fulbright to conduct research at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.
At Penn, Atsavapranee worked with Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, engineering lipid nanoparticles to deliver proteases that inhibit cancer cell proliferation. She has also worked with Shan Wang, Leland T. Edwards Professor in the School of Engineering and Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, using bioinformatics to discover blood biomarkers for cancer detection. To achieve more equitable health care, she worked with Lisa Shieh, Clinical Professor in Medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine, to evaluate an AI model that predicts risk of hospital readmission and study how room placement affects patient experience.
Outside of research, Atsavapranee spread awareness of ethical issues in health care and technology as editor-in-chief of the Penn Bioethics Journaland a teaching assistant for Engineering Ethics (EAS 2030). She was also a Research Peer Advisor for the Penn Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships (CURF), a student ambassador for the Office of Admissions, and a volunteer for Service Link, Puentes de Salud, and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. She plans to pursue a career as a physician-scientist to develop and translate technologies that are more affordable and accessible to underserved populations.
Read the full list of Penn Fulbright grant recipients for 2023-24 in Penn Today.