Eight researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine have received research grants designed to invest in high-risk, high-reward projects.
Bushra Raj, Assistant Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in the Perelman School of Medicine and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, was one of three Penn winners of the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award for independent projects developed by early-career investigators. More additional Penn scientists who received NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award for a project focusing on cancer research.
Raj’s project focuses on “testing a novel technology that uses CRISPR/Cas gene-editing tools to genomically record inputs from two signaling pathways in the developing zebrafish brain.”
Established in 2009, the Transformative Research Award promotes cross-cutting, interdisciplinary science and is open to individuals and teams of investigators who propose research that could potentially create or challenge existing paradigms.
The Penn Center for Precision Engineering for Health (CPE4H) was established late last year to accelerate engineering solutions to significant problems in healthcare. The center is one of the signature initiatives for Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and is supported by a $100 million commitment to hire faculty and support new research on innovative approaches to those problems.
Acting on that commitment, CPE4H solicited proposals during the spring of 2022 for seed grants of $80K per year for two years for research projects that address healthcare challenges in several key areas of strategic importance to Penn: synthetic biology and tissue engineering, diagnosis and drug delivery, and the development of innovative devices. While the primary investigators (PIs) for the proposed projects were required to have a primary faculty appointment within Penn Engineering, teams involving co-PIs and collaborators from other schools were eligible for support. The seed program is expected to continue for the next four years.
“It was a delight to read so many novel and creative proposals,” says Daniel A. Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in Bioengineering and the Inaugural Director of CPE4H. “It was very hard to make the final selection from a pool of such promising projects.”
Judged on technical innovation, potential to attract future resources, and ability to address a significant medical problem, the following research projects were selected to receive funding.
Evolving and Engineering Thermal Control of Mammalian Cells
Led by Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, this project will engineer molecular switches that can be toggled on and off inside mammalian cells at near-physiological temperatures. Successful development of these switches will provide new ways to communicate with cells, an advance that could be used to make safer and more effective cellular therapies. The project will use directed evolution to generate and find candidate molecular tools with the desired properties. Separately, the research will also develop new technology for manipulating cellular temperature in a rapid and programmable way. Such devices will enhance the speed and sophistication of studies of biological temperature regulation.
A Quantum Sensing Platform for Rapid and Accurate Point-of-Care Detection of Respiratory Viral Infections
Combining microfluidics and quantum photonics, PI Liang Feng, Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, Ritesh Agarwal, Professor in Materials Science Engineering, and Shu Yang, Joseph Bordogna Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, are teaming up with Ping Wang, Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, to design, build and test an ultrasensitive point-of-care detector for respiratory pathogens. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, a generalizable platform for rapid and accurate detection of viral pathogenesis would be extremely important and timely.
Versatile Coacervating Peptides as Carriers and Synthetic Organelles for Cell Engineering
PI Amish Patel, Associate Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Matthew C. Good, Associate Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in the Perelman School of Medicine and in Bioengineering, will design and create small proteins that self-assemble into droplet-like structures known as coacervates, which can then pass through the membranes of biological cells. Upon cellular entry, these protein coacervates can disassemble to deliver cargo that modulates cell behavior or be maintained as synthetic membraneless organelles. The team will design new chemistries that will facilitate passage across cell membranes, and molecular switches to sequester and release protein therapeutics. If successful, this approach could be used to deliver a wide range of macromolecule drugs to cells.
Towards an Artificial Muscle Replacement for Facial Reanimation
Cynthia Sung, Gabel Family Term Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics and Computer Information Science, will lead a research team including Flavia Vitale, Assistant Professor of Neurology and Bioengineering, and Niv Milbar, Assistant Instructor in Surgery in the Perelman School of Medicine. The team will develop and validate an electrically driven actuator to restore basic muscle responses in patients with partial facial paralysis, which can occur after a stroke or injury. The research will combine elements of robotics and biology, and aims to produce a device that can be clinically tested.
“These novel ideas are a great way to kick off the activities of the center,” says Hammer. “We look forward to soliciting other exciting seed proposals over the next several years.”
A Philadelphia life sciences company spun out of Penn is emerging from stealth mode with nearly $10 million from a seed funding round. Vittoria Biotherapeutics’ mission is to overcome limitations of CAR T cell therapy by using unique cell engineering and gene editing technologies to create new therapies that address unmet clinical needs. The technology the company is attempting to commercialize was developed by Marco Ruella, M.D., Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, who is the company’s scientific founder.
Qazi obtained his Ph.D. at the Technical University of Berlin and the Charité Hospital in Berlin, Germany working on translational approaches for musculoskeletal tissue repair using biomaterials and stem cells under the co-advisement of Georg Duda, Director of the Berlin Institute of Health and David Mooney, Mercator Fellow at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. After arriving at Penn in 2019, Qazi performed research on microscale granular hydrogels in the Polymeric Biomaterials Laboratory of Jason Burdick, Adjunct Professor in Bioengineering at Penn and Bowman Endowed Professor in Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder. While conducting postdoctoral research, Qazi also collaborated with the groups of David Issadore, Associate Professor in Bioengineering and in Electrical and Systems Engineering, and Daeyeon Lee, Professor and Evan C. Thompson Term Chair for Excellence in Teaching in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. Qazi’s postdoctoral research was supported through a fellowship from the German Research Foundation, and resulted in several publications in high-profile journals, including Advanced Materials, Cell Stem Cell, Small, and ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering.
“Taimoor has done really fantastic research as a postdoctoral fellow in the group,” says Burdick. “Purdue has a long history of excellence in biomaterials research and will be a great place for him to build a strong research program.”
Qazi’s future research program will engineer biomaterials to make fundamental and translational advances in musculoskeletal tissue engineering, including the study of how rare tissue-resident cells respond to spatiotemporal signals and participate in tissue repair, and developing modular hydrogels that permit minimally invasive delivery for tissue regeneration. The ultimate goal is to create scalable, translational, and biologically inspired healthcare solutions that benefit a patient population that is expected to grow manifold in the coming years.
Qazi is looking to build a strong and inclusive team of scientists and engineers with diverse backgrounds interested in tackling problems at the interface of translational medicine, materials science, bioengineering, and cell biology, and will be recruiting graduate students immediately. Interested students can contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I am excited to launch my independent research career at a prestigious institution like Purdue,” says Qazi. “Being at Penn and particularly in the Department of Bioengineering greatly helped me prepare for the journey ahead. I am grateful for Jason’s mentorship over the years and the access to resources provided by Jason, Dave Issadore, Ravi, Dave Meany and other faculty which support the training and professional development of postdoctoral fellows in Penn Bioengineering.”
Congratulations to Dr. Qazi from everyone at Penn Bioengineering!
The Solomon R. Pollack Award for Excellence in Graduate Bioengineering Research is given annually to the most deserving Bioengineering graduate students who have successfully completed research that is original and recognized as being at the forefront of their field. This year Penn Bioengineering recognizes the outstanding work of two graduate students in Bioengineering: Erin Berlew and Rhea Chitalia.
Erin Berlew is a Ph.D. candidate in the lab of Brian Chow, Associate Professor in Bioengineering. She successfully defended her thesis, titled “Single-component optogenetic tools for cytoskeletal rearrangements,” in December 2021. In her research, she used the BcLOV4 optogenetic platform discovered/developed in the Chow lab to control RhoGTPase signaling. Erin earned a B.S. in Chemistry from Haverford College in 2015 and was an Americorps member with City Year Philadelphia from 2015-2016. “Erin is a world-class bioengineering with an uncommon record of productivity gained through her complementary expertise in molecular, cellular, and computational biology,” says Chow. “She embodies everything wonderful, both academically and culturally, about our graduate program and its distinguished history.” Erin’s hobbies outside the lab include spending time with family, reading mystery novels, enjoying Philadelphia, and crossword puzzles. In the future, she hopes to continue to teach for the BE department (she has already taught ENGR 105 and served as a TA for undergraduate and graduate courses) and to conduct further research at Penn.
Rhea Chitalia is a Ph.D. candidate in Bioengineering and a member of the Computational Biomarker Imaging Group (CBIG), advised by Despina Kontos, Matthew J. Wilson Associate Professor of Research Radiology II in the Perelman School of Medicine. Rhea completed her B.S.E. in Biomedical Engineering at Duke University in 2015. Her doctoral research concerns leveraging machine learning, bioinformatics, and computer vision to develop computational imaging biomarkers for improved precision cancer care. In December 2021 she successfully defended her thesis titled “Computational imaging biomarkers for precision medicine: characterizing intratumor heterogeneity in breast cancer.” “It has been such a privilege to mentor Rhea on her dissertation research,” says Kontos. “Rhea has been a star graduate student. Her work has made fundamental contributions in developing computational methods that will allow us to gain important insight into tumor heterogeneity by utilizing a multi-modality imaging approach.” David Mankoff, Matthew J. Wilson Professor of Research Radiology in the Perelman School of Medicine, served as Rhea’s second thesis advisor. “It was a true pleasure for me to work with Rhea and to Chair her BE Thesis Committee,” Mankoff adds. “Rhea’s Ph.D. thesis and thesis presentation was one of the best I have had the chance to be involved with in my graduate mentoring career.” After graduation, Rhea hopes to further precision medicine initiatives through the use of real world, multi-omic data in translational industry settings. She will be joining Invicro as an Imaging Scientist. In her spare time, Rhea enjoys trying new restaurants, reading, and spending time with friends and family.
Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins, Associate Professor and Dean’s Faculty Fellow in Bioengineering and Genetics, has been awarded the 2022 Dr. Susan Lim Award for Outstanding Young Investigator by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), the preeminent, global organization dedicated to stem cells research.
This award recognizes the exceptional achievements of an investigator in the early part of his or her independent career in stem cell research. Cremins works in the field of epigenetics, and is a pioneer in understanding how chromatin, the substance within a chromosome, works:
“Dr. Phillips-Cremins is a gifted researcher with diverse skills across cell, molecular, and computational biology. She is a shining star in the stem cell field who has already made landmark contributions in bringing long-range chromatin folding mechanisms to stem cell research. In addition to her skills as an outstanding researcher,” ISSCR President Melissa Little, Ph.D., said. “She has flourished as an independent investigator, providing the stem cell field with unique and creative approaches that have facilitated conceptual leaps in our understanding of long-range spatial regulation of stem cell fate. Congratulations, Jennifer, on this prestigious honor.”
Cremins was awarded a NIH Director’s Pioneer Award in 2021 and a Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) grant as part of the CZI Collaborative Pairs Pilot Project in 2020. The long-term goal of her lab is to understand the mechanisms by which chromatin architecture governs genome function. The ISSCR will recognize Cremins and her research in a plenary session during the ISSCR annual meeting on June 15.
Most organisms have proteins that react to light. Even creatures that don’t have eyes or other visual organs use these proteins to regulate many cellular processes, such as transcription, translation, cell growth and cell survival.
The field of optogenetics relies on such proteins to better understand and manipulate these processes. Using lasers and genetically engineered versions of these naturally occurring proteins, known as probes, researchers can precisely activate and deactivate a variety of cellular pathways, just like flipping a switch.
Now, Penn Engineering researchers have described a new type of optogenetic protein that can be controlled not only by light, but also by temperature, allowing for a higher degree of control in the manipulation of cellular pathways. The research will open new horizons for both basic science and translational research.
Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering (BE), Bomyi Lim, Assistant Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Brian Chow, Associate Professor in BE, and graduate students William Benman in Bugaj’s lab, Hao Deng in Lim’s lab, and Erin Berlew and Ivan Kuznetsov in Chow’s lab, published their study in Nature Chemical Biology. Arndt Siekmann, Associate Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at the Perelman School of Medicine, and Caitlyn Parker, a research technician in his lab, also contributed to this research.
The team’s original aim was to develop a single-component probe that would be able to manipulate specific cellular pathways more efficiently. The model for their probe was a protein called BcLOV4, and through further investigation of this protein’s function, they made a fortuitous discovery: that the protein is controlled by both light and temperature.
Yogesh Goyal, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in Genetics and Bioengineering, has been selected as a 2021 STAT Wunderkind, which honors the “next generation of scientific superstars.” Goyal’s research is centered around developing novel mathematical and experimental frameworks to study how a rare subpopulation of cancer cells are able to survive drug therapy and develop resistance, resulting in relapse in patients. In particular, his work provides a view of different paths that single cancer cells take when becoming resistant, at unprecedented resolution and scale. This research aims to help devise novel therapeutic strategies to combat the challenge of drug resistance in cancer.
Goyal is a Jane Coffin Childs Postdoctoral Fellow in the systems biology lab of Arjun Raj, Professor in Bioengineering and Genetics at Penn. He will begin an appointment as Assistant Professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology (CDB) in the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in spring 2022.
Penn Bioengineering alumna Cynthia Reinhart-King, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Engineering and Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Vanderbilt University, was elected the next President of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), the largest professional society for biomedical engineers. Her term as president-elect started at the annual BMES meeting in October 2021.
Reinhart-King graduated with her Ph.D. from Penn Bioengineering in 2006. She studied in the lab of Daniel Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering as a Whitaker Fellow and went on to complete postdoctoral training as an Individual NIH NRSA postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester. Prior to joining Vanderbilt, she was on the faculty of Cornell University and received tenure in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. The Reinhart-King lab at Vanderbilt “uses tissue engineering, microfabrication, novel biomaterials, model organisms, and tools from cell and molecular biology to study the effects of mechanical and chemical changes in tissues during disease progression.”
Reinhart-King gave the 2019 Grace Hopper Distinguished Lecture, sponsored by the Department of Bioengineering. This lecture series recognizes successful women in engineering and seeks to inspire students to achieve at the highest level. She is a recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including the Rita Schaffer Young Investigator Award in 2010, an NSF CAREER Award, and the Mid-Career Award in 2018 from BMES.
“BMES is facing many challenges, like many societies, as we deal with the hurdles associated with COVID-19 and inequities across society. We must continue to address those challenges. However, we are also in a terrific window of having robust membership, many members who are eager to get involved with the society’s activities, and a national lens on science and scientists. One of my goals will be to identify and create opportunities for our members to help build the reach of the society and its member.”
Read “Cynthia Reinhart-King is president-elect of the Biomedical Engineering Society” in Vanderbilt News.
Our next Penn Bioengineering seminar will be held on zoom next Thursday.
Speaker: Kenneth Yamada, M.D., Ph.D.
NIH Distinguished Investigator
Cell Biology Section
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Date: Thursday, September 9, 2021
Time: 3:30-4:30 PM EDT
Zoom – check email for link or contact email@example.com
Location: Moore Room 216, 200 S. 33rd Street
Abstract: Real-time microscopy of the dynamics of cells and tissues in 3D environments is opening new windows to understanding the biophysical mechanisms of complex biological processes. Direct visualization is allowing us to explore fundamental questions in more depth that include: How do cells migrate in 3D? How do cancer cells invade? How is the extracellular matrix assembled? How are organs formed? Visualizing how cells move and organize into tissues is not only providing descriptive insights, but is also leading to the identification of novel, unexpected physical and mechanical mechanisms relevant to tissue engineering. Cells can use varying combinations of cell adhesion to adjacent cells and to the surrounding extracellular matrix with localized cellular contractility to migrate, invade, and produce the complex tissue architecture needed for organ formation.
Kenneth Yamada Bio: Kenneth Yamada has been an NIH Distinguished Investigator since 2011. He received MD and PhD degrees from Stanford. He was a Section Chief at the National Cancer Institute for 10 years and has been a Section Chief at NIDCR since 1990. He is an elected Fellow of the AAAS and American Society for Cell Biology. His research focuses on discovering novel mechanisms and regulators of cell interactions with the extracellular matrix and their roles in embryonic development and cancer. His research group focuses on the mechanisms by which three-dimensional (3D) extracellular matrix mediates key biological events, including cell migration, tissue morphogenesis, and cancer cell invasion. His research places particular emphasis on characterizing the dynamic movements of cells and their extracellular matrix as tissues are remodeled in 3D in real time. The biological systems they study include human primary cells migrating in 3D, human tumor cells and tissues, and mouse organ development. He places particularly high priority on developing future independent research leaders.