Honoring a Life Scientist’s Lifesaving Science

by Nathi Magubane

Carl June (center) is awarded the 2024 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. His innovative contributions to CAR T cell therapy have transformed the approach to treating certain cancers. His co-recipient is Michel Sadelain of Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital (right). Flanking them on the stage are (from left to right) Olivia Wilde, Camille Leahy, and Regina King. (Image: Courtesy of Breakthrough Prize)

In his acceptance speech for the 2024 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, Carl June, a pioneer in cancer treatment, highlighted the people most affected by his groundbreaking work developing CAR T cell immunotherapy: the patients. 

When all other cancer treatments failed them, said June, “instead of giving up, they pushed forward and volunteered for an unproven experimental new treatment. It’s because of these brave volunteers like our first patients Doug Olson, Bob Levis, and Emily Whitehead, that we have now treated over 34,000 cancer patients.” 

June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies (CCI) at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, was honored at the 10th Breakthrough Prize awards ceremony for the development of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell immunotherapy. This is a cancer treatment approach in which each patient’s T cells are modified to target and kill their cancer cells.

Held on Saturday, April 13, and nicknamed the “Oscars of Science,” world-renowned researchers exchanged lab coats for tuxedos at the star-studded Breakthrough Prize awards ceremony hosted by Emmy Award-winning actor and comedian James Corden. Actors Olivia Wilde and Regina King handed June and his co-winner, Michel Sadelain of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the awards.

“We’re so grateful to have some recognition for a lot of years of work on cancer research,” said June at the event. “I think the best thing is that people learn about this, that this came out of research right here in the country. Now there’s been 34,000 people treated and it just started 10 years ago so people need to understand the value of research to make these new breakthrough therapies.” 

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Carl June is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. Read more stories featuring June in the BE Blog.

Study Reveals Inequities in Access to Transformative CAR T Cell Therapy

Image: iStock/PeopleImages

Patients being treated for B-cell non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL) who are part of minority populations may not have equal access to cutting-edge CAR T cell therapies, according to a new analysis led by researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine and published in NEJM Evidence.

CAR T cell therapy is a personalized form of cancer therapy that was pioneered at Penn Medicine and has brought hope to thousands of patients who had otherwise run out of treatment options. Six different CAR T cell therapies have been approved since 2017 for a variety of blood cancers, including B-cell NHL that has relapsed or stopped responding to treatment. Image: iStock/PeopleImages

“CAR T cell therapy represents a major leap forward for blood cancer treatment, with many patients living longer than ever before, but its true promise can only be realized if every patient in need has access to these therapies,” says lead author Guido Ghilardi, a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of senior author Marco Ruella, an assistant professor of hematology-oncology and scientific director of the Lymphoma Program. “From the scientific perspective, we’re constantly working in the laboratory to make CAR T cell therapy work better, but we also want to make sure that when a groundbreaking treatment like this becomes available, it reaches all patients who might be able to benefit.”

Read the full story in Penn Medicine News.

Marco Ruella is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. Read more stories featuring Ruella in the BE Blog.

Scientists Discover a Key Quality-Control Mechanism in DNA Replication

by Meagan Raeke

Illustration of the 55LCC complex. (Image: Courtesy of Cameron Baines/Phospho Biomedical Animation)

When cells in the human body divide, they must first make accurate copies of their DNA. The DNA replication exercise is one of the most important processes in all living organisms and is fraught with risks of mutation, which can lead to cell death or cancer. Now, findings from biologists from the Perelman School of Medicine and from the University of Leeds have identified a multiprotein “machine” in cells that helps govern the pausing or stopping of DNA replication to ensure its smooth progress. Illustration of the 55LCC complex. (Image: Courtesy of Cameron Baines/Phospho Biomedical Animation)

The discovery, published in Cell, advances the understanding of DNA replication, helps explain a puzzling set of genetic diseases, and could inform the development of future treatments for neurologic and developmental disorders.

“We’ve found what appears to be a critical quality-control mechanism in cells,” says senior co-corresponding author Roger Greenberg, the J. Samuel Staub, M.D. Professor in the department of Cancer Biology, director of the Penn Center for Genome Integrity, and director of basic science at the Basser Center for BRCA at Penn Medicine. “Trillions of cells in our body divide every single day, and this requires accurate replication of our genomes. Our work describes a new mechanism that regulates protein stability in replicating DNA. We now know a bit more about an important step in this complex biological process.”

Read the full story at Penn Medicine News.

Greenberg is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Accelerating CAR T Cell Therapy: Lipid Nanoparticles Speed Up Manufacturing

by Ian Scheffler

Visualization of a CAR T cell (in red) attacking a cancer cell (in blue) (Meletios Varras via Getty Images)

For patients with certain types of cancer, CAR T cell therapy has been nothing short of life changing. Developed in part by Carl June, Richard W. Vague Professor at Penn Medicine, and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2017, CAR T cell therapy mobilizes patients’ own immune systems to fight lymphoma and leukemia, among other cancers.

However, the process for manufacturing CAR T cells themselves is time-consuming and costly, requiring multiple steps across days. The state of the art involves extracting patients’ T cells, then activating them with tiny magnetic beads, before giving the T cells genetic instructions to make chimeric antigen receptors (CARs), the specialized receptors that help T cells eliminate cancer cells.

Now, Penn Engineers have developed a novel method for manufacturing CAR T cells, one that takes just 24 hours and requires only one step, thanks to the use of lipid nanoparticles (LNPs), the potent delivery vehicles that played a critical role in the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines.

In a new paper in Advanced Materials, Michael J. Mitchell, Associate Professor in Bioengineering, describes the creation of “activating lipid nanoparticles” (aLNPs), which can activate T cells and deliver the genetic instructions for CARs in a single step, greatly simplifying  the CAR T cell manufacturing process. “We wanted to combine these two extremely promising areas of research,” says Ann Metzloff, a doctoral student in Bioengineering and NSF Graduate Research Fellow in the Mitchell lab and the paper’s lead author. “How could we apply lipid nanoparticles to CAR T cell therapy?”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

“Switchable” Bispecific Antibodies Pave Way for Safer Cancer Treatment

by Nathi Magubane

Bispecific T cell engagers are emerging as a powerful class of immunotherapy to treat cancer but are sometimes hindered by unwanted outcomes, such as on-target, off-tumor toxicity; cytokine release syndrome; and neurotoxicity. Now, researchers Penn researchers have developed a novel “switchable” bispecific T cell engager that mitigates these negative effects by co-opting a drug already approved by the FDA. (Image: iStock / CIPhotos)

In the ever-evolving battle against cancer, immunotherapy presents a turning point. It began with harnessing the body’s immune system to fight cancer, a concept rooted more than a century ago but only gaining significant momentum in recent years. Pioneering this shift were therapies like CAR T cell therapy, which reprograms a patient’s T cells to attack cancer cells. Within this domain, bispecific T cell engagers, or bispecific antibodies, have emerged as effective treatments for many blood-borne cancers in the clinic and are being evaluated for solid tumor therapy.

These antibodies simultaneously latch onto both a cancer cell and a T cell, effectively bridging the gap between the two. This proximity triggers the T cells to unleash their lethal arsenal, thereby killing the cancer cells. However, bispecific T cell engagers, like many cancer therapies, face hurdles such as cell-specific targeting limitations, known as on-target off-tumor toxicity, which means the tumor is correctly targeted but so are other healthy cells in the body, leading to healthy tissue damage. Moreover, bispecific antibodies may also lead to immune system overactivation, a precursor for cytokine release syndrome (CRS), and neurotoxicity.

Now, researchers led by Michael Mitchell of the University of Pennsylvania have found a way to circumvent many of these deleterious effects by developing a bispecific T cell nanoengager that is equipped with an “off switch.” Their findings are published in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

“We’re excited to show that bispecific antibodies can be tweaked in a way that allows us to tap into their powerful cancer-killing potential without inducing toxicity to healthy tissues,” says Mitchell, associate professor of bioengineering at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “This new controllable drug-delivery mechanism, which we call switchable bispecific T cell nanoengagers, or SiTEs, adds this switchable component to the antibody via administering an FDA-approved small-molecule drug, amantadine.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

What Makes a Breakthrough? “Eight Steps Back” Before Making it to the Finish Lit

by Meagan Raeke

(From left to right) Breakthrough Prize recipients Drew Weissman, Virginia M-Y Lee, Katalin Karikó, and Carl June at a reception on Feb. 13. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine News)

In popular culture, scientific discovery is often portrayed in “Eureka!” moments of sudden realization: a lightbulb moment, coming sometimes by accident. But in real life—and in Penn Medicine’s rich history as a scientific innovator for more than 250 years—scientific breakthroughs can never truly be distilled down to a single, “ah-ha” moment. They’re the result of years of hard work, perseverance, and determination to keep going, despite repeated, often discouraging, barriers and setbacks. 

“Research is [like taking], four, or six, or eight steps back, and then a little stumble forward,” said Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, the Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research. “You keep doing that over and over and somehow, rarely, you can get to the top of the step.” 

For Weissman and his research partner, Katalin Karikó, PhD, an adjunct professor of Neurosurgery, that persistence—documented in thousands of news stories across the globe—led to the mRNA technology that enabled two lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines, earning the duo numerous accolades, including the highest scientific honor, the 2023 Nobel Prize in Medicine

Weissman and Karikó were also the 2022 recipients of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the world’s largest science awards, popularly known as the “Oscars of Science.” Founded in 2012 by a group of web and tech luminaries including Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the Breakthrough Prizes recognize “the world’s top scientists working in the fundamental sciences—the disciplines that ask the biggest questions and find the deepest explanations.” With six total winners, including four from the Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM), Penn stands alongside Harvard and MIT as the institutions whose researchers have been honored with the most Breakthrough Prizes. 

Virginia M.Y. Lee, PhD, the John H. Ware 3rd Professor in Alzheimer’s Research, was awarded the Prize in 2020 for discovering how different forms of misfolded proteins can move from cell to cell and lead to neurodegenerative disease progression. Carl June, MD, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy, is the most recent recipient and will be recognized at a star-studded red-carpet event in April for pioneering the development of CAR T cell therapy, which programs patients’ own immune cells to fight their cancer.

The four PSOM Breakthrough Prize recipients were honored on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024, when a new large-scale installation was unveiled in the lobby of the Biomedical Research Building to celebrate each laurate and their life-changing discoveries. During a light-hearted panel discussion, the honorees shared how a clear purpose, dogged determination, and a good sense of humor enabled their momentum forward. 

Read the full story in Penn Medicine News.

Carl June and Jon Epstein are members of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. Read more stories featuring them in the BE Blog here and here, respectively.

Weissman presented the Department of Bioengineering’s 2022 Herman P. Schwan Distinguished Lecture: “Nucleoside-modified mRNA-LNP therapeutics.” Read more stories featuring Weissman in the BE Blog here.

Secondary Cancers Following CAR T Cell Therapy Are Rare, Penn Medicine Analysis Shows

by Meagan Raeke

3d illustration of a damaged and disintegrating cancer cell. (Image: iStock/vitanovski)

The development of any type of second cancer following CAR T cell therapy is a rare occurrence, as found in an analysis of more than 400 patients treated at Penn Medicine, researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania reported today in Nature Medicine. The team also described a single case of an incidental T cell lymphoma that did not express the CAR gene and was found in the lymph node of a patient who developed a secondary lung tumor following CAR T cell therapy.

CAR T cell therapy, a personalized form of immunotherapy in which each patient’s T cells are modified to target and kill their cancer cells, was pioneered at Penn. More than 30,000 patients with blood cancers in the United States—many of whom had few, if any, remaining treatment options available—have been treated with CAR T cell therapy since the first such therapy was approved in 2017. Some of the earliest patients treated in clinical trials have gone on to experience long-lasting remissions of a decade or more.

Secondary cancers, including T cell lymphomas, are a known, rare risk of several types of cancer treatment, including chemotherapy, radiation, and stem cell transplant. CAR T cell therapy is currently only approved to treat blood cancers that have relapsed or stopped responding to treatment, so patients who receive CAR T cell therapies have already received multiple other types of treatment and are facing dire prognoses.

In November 2023, the FDA announced an investigation into several reported cases of secondary T cell malignancies, including CAR-positive lymphoma, in patients who previously received CAR T cell therapy products. In January 2024, the FDA began requiring drugmakers to add a safety label warning to CAR T cell products. While the FDA review is still ongoing, it remains unclear whether the secondary T cell malignancies were caused by CAR T cell therapy.

As a leader in CAR T cell therapy, Penn has longstanding, clearly established protocols to monitor each patient both during and after treatment – including follow-up for 15 years after infusion – and participates in national reporting requirements and databases that track outcomes data from all cell therapy and bone marrow transplants.

Marco Ruella, M.D.

“When this case was identified, we did a detailed analysis and concluded the T cell lymphoma was not related to the CAR T cell therapy. As the news of other cases came to light, we knew we should go deeper, to comb through our own data to better understand and help define the risk of any type of secondary cancer in patients who have received CAR T cell products,” said senior author Marco Ruella, MD, an assistant professor of Hematology-Oncology and Scientific Director of the Lymphoma Program. “What we found was very encouraging and reinforces the overall safety profile for this type of personalized cell therapy.”

Read the full story in Penn Medicine News.

Marco Ruella is Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine. He is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Sydney Shaffer Wins Christopher J. Marshall Award for Melanoma Research

Sydney Shaffer, M.D., Ph.D.

Sydney Shaffer, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine, was named the 2023 Christopher J. Marshall Award winner by the Society for Melanoma Research (SMR). The award recognizes Shaffer’s contributions to melanoma research on oncogenic signalling and molecular pathogenesis of this disease, as well as her rapid development as a rising star and leader in the field, which have helped to further the SMR’s goal to eradicate melanoma. The award was presented at the SMR annual meeting in Philadelphia in November 2023. 

The Christopher J. Marshall Award was established in 2015 by the SMR in partnership with Melanoma Research Foundation Congress to recognize a student, postdoctoral fellow, or new independent PI who has published a substantial and original contribution to studies of signal transduction and melanoma.

Shaffer joined Penn as an Assistant Professor in 2019. She holds a M.D.-Ph.D. in Medicine and Bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania and conducted postdoctoral research in cancer biology in the lab of Junwei Shi, Associate Professor in Penn Medicine. The Syd Shaffer Lab is an interdisciplinary team which focuses on “understanding how differences between single-cells generate phenotypes such as drug resistance, oncogenesis, differentiation, and invasion [using] a combination of imaging and sequencing technologies to investigate rare single-cell phenomena.” A recent paper in Nature Communications details the team’s method to quantify long-lived fluctuations in gene expression that are predictive of later resistance to targeted therapy for melanoma.

Read the award announcement and the full list of prior winners at the SMR website.

Arjun Raj Receives 2023-24 Heilmeier Award

by Olivia J. McMahon

Arjun Raj, Ph.D.

Arjun Raj, Professor in Bioengineering in Penn Engineering, has been named the recipient of the 2023-24 George H. Heilmeier Faculty Award for Excellence in Research for “pioneering the development and application of single-cell, cancer-fighting technologies.”

The Heilmeier Award honors a Penn Engineering faculty member whose work is scientifically meritorious and has high technological impact and visibility. It is named for the late George H. Heilmeier, a Penn Engineering alumnus and member of the School’s Board of Advisors, whose technological contributions include the development of liquid crystal displays and whose honors include the National Medal of Science and Kyoto Prize.

Raj, who also holds an appointment in Genetics in the Perelman School of Medicine, is a pioneer in the burgeoning field of single-cell engineering and biology. Powered by innovative techniques he has developed for molecular profiling of single cells, his scientific discoveries range from the molecular underpinnings of cellular variability to the behavior of single cells across biology, including in diseases such as cancer.

Raj will deliver the 2023-24 Heilmeier Lecture at Penn Engineering during the spring 2024 semester.

This story originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

Read more stories featuring Dr. Raj here.

Leveraging the Body’s Postal System to Understand and Treat Disease

by Nathi Magubane

Microwell device with a solution in the reservoir (Image: Courtesy of David E. Reynolds)

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 team was led by Jina Ko, an assistant professor with appointments in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and Perelman School of Medicine. “Our method allows for highly accurate quantification of the individual molecules inside an EV,” Ko says . “This opens up many doors in the realm of early disease detection and treatment.”

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.

Read the full story in Penn Today.

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).