2021 CAREER Award recipient: Alex Hughes, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering

by Melissa Pappas

Alex Hughes (illustration by Melissa Pappas)

The National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award is given to early-career researchers in order to kickstart their careers in innovative and pivotal research while giving back to the community in the form of outreach and education. Alex Hughes, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering and in Cell and Developmental Biology, is among the Penn Engineering faculty members who have received the CAREER Award this year.

Hughes plans to use the funds to develop a human kidney model to better understand how the development of cells and tissues influences congenital diseases of the kidney and urinary tract.

The model, known as an “organoid,” is a lab-grown piece of human kidney tissue on the scale of millimeters to centimeters, grown from cultured human cells.

“We want to create a human organoid structure that has nephrons, the filters of the kidney, that are properly ‘plumbed’ or connected to the ureteric epithelium, the tubules that direct urine towards the bladder,” says Hughes. “To achieve that, we have to first understand how to guide the formation of the ureteric tubule networks, and then stimulate early nephrons to fuse with those networks. In the end, the structures will look like ‘kidney subunits’ that could potentially be injected and fused to existing kidneys.”

The field of bioengineering has touched on questions similar to those posed by Hughes, focusing on drug testing and disease treatment. Some of these questions can be answered with the “organ-on-a-chip” approach, while others need an even more realistic model of the organ. The fundamentals of kidney development and questions such as “how does the development of nephrons affect congenital kidney and urinary tract anomalies?” require an organoid in an environment as similar to the human body as possible.

“We decided to start with the kidney for a few reasons,” says Hughes. “First, because its development is a beautiful process; the tubule growth is similar to that of a tree, splitting into branches. It’s a complex yet understudied organ that hosts incredibly common developmental defects.

“Second,” he says, “the question of how things form and develop in the kidney has major medical implications, and we cannot answer that with the ‘organ-on-a-chip’ approach. We need to create a model that mimics the chemical and mechanical properties of the kidney to watch these tissues develop.”

The fundamental development of the kidney can also answer other questions related to efficiency and the evolution of this biological filtration system.

“We have the tendency to believe that systems in the human body are the most evolved and thus the most efficient, but that is not necessarily true,” says Hughes. “If we can better understand the development of a system, such as the kidney, then we may be able to make the system better.”

Hughes’ kidney research will lay the foundation for broader goals within regenerative medicine and organ transplantation.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

A Career of Accomplishments: Daniel Bogen

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Daniel K. Bogen,, MD, PhD
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Department chair David Meaney toasts Daniel Bogen

Daniel K. Bogen, MD, PhD, a professor in Penn’s Department of Bioengineering, is retiring. A Harvard alumnus (AB, 1972;  PhD, 1977; MD, 1979). Dr. Bogen was the the first MD/PhD hired by the department in its history.  Starting at Penn in 1982, Dr. Bogen spent his entire career on the faculty.

Early in his career, Dr. Bogen focused on cardiac tissue mechanics and understanding the functional changes that occur to heart tissue after ischemic insult.  These publications were among the first to use finite element techniques to address the critical problem of how heart wall contraction changes after injury.  Some of these papers are continually cited even today. Motivated to work on practical and applied clinical bioengineering-based problems, Dr. Bogen transformed his research to build items that patients would use.  Rather than a timescale from discovery to application that can last decades for most academic researchers, Dr. Bogen’s new direction allowed him to put items in the hands of patients within months.  In addition, Dr. Bogen’s led the PENNToys program, a nationally known program designing toys for children with disabilities.

The passion for impact also extended into the classroom. Reimagining the laboratory education in bioengineering, he used NSF-sponsored funding to create a discovery-based educational experience for undergraduates. This laboratory educational experience became an international model program, copied by many highly ranked bioengineering/biomedical engineering programs. This educational program was the cornerstone of the proposal funded by the Whitaker Foundation, leading to the construction of Skirkanich Hall, the current home of the Department of Bioengineering, in 2006. As a testament to his gifts as an education, Dr. Bogen’s teaching excellence was rewarded in 2005 with the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Award, which is the highest university teaching award bestowed by Penn.

Dr. Bogen will remain active in his retirement, and always enjoys hearing from alumni and students. Feel free to send him a congratulatory note — dan@seas.upenn.edu.