Week in BioE (February 27, 2018)

Pain Relief Using Spearmint Aromatherapy

spearmintPain is the body’s way of telling you there’s something wrong. For most of us, the pain goes away after the body fixes itself. However, more than 10% of Americans suffer from chronic pain after the healing period. Many chronic pain patients need drugs to reduce their symptoms.  Given the pervasive use of opioid drugs to treat chronic pain, opioid addiction is common among chronic pain patients.

However, a remarkably clever and elegant cellular engineering technology may provide a new approach for treating chronic pain. Martin Fussenegger, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Biosystems Science and Bioengineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, is the lead author of a new study published in Nature Biomedical Engineering combining cellular and genetic engineering to alleviate pain using cells as factories to produce spearmint. The strategy employed by the authors used engineered human cells to express huwentoxin IV, a blocker of sodium channels regulating pain signals in neurons, upon exposure to carvone, a terpenoid found in spearmint.

Testing their concept in a mouse model of pain, the authors found that mice exposed to spearmint both orally and via aromatherapy showed fewer signs of pain. Looking forward, Dr. Fussenegger and his colleagues believe that their technology, called AromaCell, should be tested next in human cell lines to alleviate concerns about immunological responses to the cells when implanted into patients.

Press Button to Bleed

Another recent article in Nature Biomedical Engineering details the work of the Boston-area biotech firm Seventh Sense Biosystems on their push-button blood collection device, called TAP. As we have discussed here before, currently used blood-drawing procedures are often uncomfortable to patients because of the sharp needle prick used to collect blood. TAP was designed to collect 100 microliters of whole blood using a device the size of a stethoscope bell in a “virtually painless” manner.

The scientists from Seventh Sense designed the patch using microneedle technology. With this approach, they designed TAP with multiple microneedles deployed at high velocity to collect blood from capillaries — the tiniest vessels that connect veins and arteries and that lie closest to the surface of the skin — rather than from a vein tied off with a tourniquet. Testing the device in 144 volunteers, the study authors found that the device was as accurate as current methods for obtaining blood to measure hemoglobin (important for diabetics) and was significantly less painful.

Seventh Sense predicts this disposable device will cost only $5 per use, but this is still almost double the materials cost for standard blood draws. However, the company believes that the pain-free nature of and time saved with TAP will offset the higher cost of the device.

Advances in Global Health

The positively epidemic nature of human papilloma virus (HPV), affecting nearly one quarter of all Americans, has drawn particular attention over the last decade or so. The clear association between HPV and cervical cancer (as well as head and neck cancers) has led to the development and deployment of vaccines (controversial due to the sexually transmitted nature of HPV) and to increased calls for more regular and accurate screening. In developing nations, implementing either effective vaccination or early screening programs remains an uphill struggle.

Responding to the need for more accessible screening technologies, Jessica Ramella-Roman, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Florida International University (FIU), and Purnima Madhivanan, Ph.D., an epidemiology professor at FIU, traveled to Mysore, India, to install a device developed by Dr. Ramella-Roman at the Public Health Research Institute of India. The device is a hand-held imaging tool that uses a technology called Mueller matrix imaging to provide high-resolution digital images of the cervix in about 5 seconds. The resolution of the images eliminates the need to use dyes or stains to detect malignant cells. The testing of the device is currently ongoing.

Elsewhere in global health, researchers at Google have teamed with medical faculty from Stanford to produce a machine learning algorithm that could examine the human retina and determine whether the person in question is at risk for cardiovascular disease. They report their findings in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

The technology is not ready for actual patients yet — the study authors concede that the algorithm does not outperform the currently available technologies. However, if improved with additional research and testing, the algorithm could be deployed virtually anywhere, including in patients’ homes.

People and Places

Yale University has launched a new Center for Biomedical Data Science, dedicated to collecting, studying, and managing big data. The interim directors are Mark Gerstein, Ph.D., Albert L Williams Professor of Biomedical Informatics, Molecular Biophysics, and Biochemistry, and Hongyu Zhao, Ph.D., Ira V. Hiscock Professor of Biostatistics and Professor of Genetics and Professor of Statistics and Data Science.

The University of Virginia has announced a partnership with Smithfield Bioscience, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, Inc. The goal of the partnership is to advance a variety of tissue engineering applications using tissue samples from pigs. George J. Christ, Ph.D., Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Orthopaedic Surgery, heads UVA’s $3 million Center for Advanced Biomanufacturing, which is involved in the partnership.

Finally, we offer our congratulations to Guoqiang Yu, Ph.D., Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Kentucky and a former research faculty member in physics here at Penn, for being awarded a two-year $420,000 R21 research grant from the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Dr. Yu will use the money to develop a device to measure cerebral hemodynamics in neonatal ICU patients.

Week in BioE (February 2, 2018)

Broccoli + Yogurt = Cancer Prevention?

broccoliGeorge H.W. Bush refused to eat it, but maybe he should start. It turns out that broccoli, combined with bioengineered yogurt, could provide effect cancer prevention. We’ve known for some time that compounds in certain fresh vegetables can increase chemoprevention, but the levels are usually too low to be effective, or they can’t be assimilated optimally by the body.  However, scientists in Singapore found that engineered bacteria, when ingested by mice with colorectal cancer, had anticancer effects. The bacteria caused the secretion of an enzyme by the cancer cells that transformed glucosinolates — compounds found in vegetables — into molecules with anticancer efficacy. The scientists report their findings in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

The authors programmed an E. coli cell line to bind to heparan sulfate proteoglycan, a cell surface protein that occurs in colorectal cancer cells. Once the engineered bacteria bound to the cancer cells, the bacteria secreted myrosinase, an enzyme that commonly occurs in many plants to defend them against aphids. In the cell model employed by the authors, myrosinase caused the conversion of glucosinolates into sulforaphane, which in turn could inhibit cancer cell growth.

The scientists then applied their system in a mouse model of colorectal cancer, feeding the mice yogurt infused with the engineered bacteria. They found that the mice fed broccoli plus the yogurt developed fewer and smaller tumors than mice fed broccoli alone. Additional testing is necessary, of course, but the study authors believe that their engineered bacteria could be used both as a preventive tool in high-risk patients and as a supplement for cancer patients after surgery to remove their tumors.

The Gates of CRISPR

About two years ago, software giant Microsoft unveiled Azimuth, a gene-editing tool for CRISPR/Casa9 that it had developed in collaboration with scientists at the Broad Institute. Now, in response to concerns that CRIPR may edit more of the genome than a bioengineer wants, the team has introduced a tool called Elevation. A new article in Nature Biomedical Engineering discusses the new tool.

In the article, the team, co-led by John C. Doench, Ph.D., Institute Scientist at the Broad Institute, describes how it developed Azimuth and Elevation, both of which are machine learning models, and deployed the tools to compare their ability to predict off-target editing with the ability of other approaches. The Elevation model outperformed the other methods. In addition, the team has implemented a cloud-based service for end-to-end RNA design, which should alleviate some of the time and resource handicaps that scientists face in using CRISPR.

Reducing Infant Mortality With an App

Among the challenges still faced in the developing world with regard to health care is high infant mortality, with the most common cause being perinatal asphyxia, or lack of oxygen reaching the infant during delivery. In response, Nigerian graduate student Charles C. Onu, a Master’s student in the computer science lab of Doina Precup, Ph.D., at McGill University in Montreal, founded a company called Ubenwa, an Igbo word that means “baby’s cry.”

With Ubenwa and scientists from McGill, Onu developed a smartphone app and a wearable that apply machine learning to instantly diagnose birth asphyxia based on the sound of a baby’s cry. In initial testing, the device performed well, with sensitivity of more than 86% and specificity of more than 89%. You can read more about the development and testing of Ubenwa at Arxiv.

People and Places

Several universities have announced that they are introducing new centers for research in bioengineering. Purdue University secured $27 million in funding from Semiconductor Research Corp. for its Center for Brain-inspired Computing Enabling Autonomous Intelligence, or C-BRIC, which opened last month. The center will develop, among other technologies, robotics that can operate without human intervention.

In Atlanta, Emory University received a $400 million pledge from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation for two new centers — the Winship Cancer Institute Tower and a new Health Sciences Research Building. The latter will host five research teams, including one specializing in biomedical engineering. Further north in Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University announced that it will begin construction on a new $92 million Engineering Research Building in the fall.  The uppermost floors of the new building will include labs for the college’s Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Finally, North Carolina’s Elon College will introduce a bachelor’s degree program in engineering in the fall. The program will offer concentrations in biomedical engineering and computer engineering. Sirena Hargrove-Leak, Ph.D., is director of the program.

Week in BioE (December 15, 2017)

A New Model of the Small Intestine

small intestine
Small intestinal mucosa infested with Giardia lamblia parasites

Diseases of the small intestine, including Crohn’s disease and microbial infections, impose a huge burden on health. However, finding treatments for these diseases is challenged by the lack of optimal models for studying  disease. Animal models are only so close to human disease states, and laboratory models using cell lines do not completely mimic the environment inside the gut.

However, these limitations might be overcome soon thanks to the research of scientists at Tufts University.  In an article recently published in PLOS ONE, a team led by David L. Kaplan, Ph.D., of the Tufts Department of Biomedical Engineering, describes how they used donor stem cells and a compartmentalized biomimetic scaffold to model and generate small intestine cells that could differentiate into the broad variety of cell types common to that organ.

The study team tested the response of its cell model to E. coli, a common pathogen. At the genetic level, the model matched the reaction of the human small intestine when exposed to this bacterium. The success of the model could translate into its use in the near future to better understand the digestive system’s response to infection, as well as to test individualized treatments for inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s.

Saving Battle-wounded Eyes

The increase in combat survival rates has led to a higher incidence of veterans with permanent vision loss due to catastrophic damage to the eye. Globe injuries will recover of some vision, if caught in time. However, combat care for eye injuries often occurs hundreds or thousands of miles away from emergency rooms with attending ophthalmologists. With this unavoidable delay in treatment, people with globe injuries suffer blindness and often enucleation.

However, battle medics might soon have something in their arsenals to prevent such blinding injuries immediately in the combat theater. As reported recently in Science Translational Medicine, engineers at the University of Southern California (USC) and ophthalmologists from USC’s Roski Eye Institute have collaborated in creating a new material for temporary sealing of globe injuries. The study authors, led by John J. Whalen, III, Ph.D., used a gel called poly(N-isopropylacrylamide) (PNIPAM), already under investigation for treating retinal injuries. PNIPAM is a thermoresponsive sealant, meaning it is a liquid at cooler temperature but an adhesive gel at warmer temperature. These interesting properties mean PNIPAM can be applied as a liquid and then solidifies quickly on the eye. The authors manipulated PNIPAM chemically to make it more stable at body temperature. As envisioned, the gel, when used with globe injuries, could be applied by medics and then removed with cold water just before the eye is treated.

The study team has tested the gel in rabbits, where it showed statistically significant improvement in wound sealing and no negative effects on the eyes or overall health of the rabbits. The authors believe the material will be ready for human testing in 2019.

Predicting Seizures in Epilepsy

Epilepsy is a central nervous system disorder characterized by seizure activity that can range in severity from mild to debilitating. Many patients with epilepsy experience adequate control of seizures with medications; however, about a third of epileptic patients have intractable cases requiring surgery or other invasive procedures.

In what could be a breakthrough in the treatment of refractive epilepsy, scientists from Australia in collaboration with IBM Research-Australia have used big data from epilepsy patients to develop a computer model that can predict when seizures will occur. So far, the technology predicts 69% of seizures in patients. While it’s still short of a range of accuracy making it feasible for use in patients outside of experimental settings, the acquisition of ever-increasing amounts of data will render the model more accurately.

The Art of Genetic Engineering

Among the techniques used in genetic engineering is protein folding, which is one of the naturally occurring processes that DNA undergoes as it takes on three dimensions. Among the major developments in genetic engineering was the discovery of the ability to fold DNA strands artificially, in a process called DNA origami.

Now, as suggested by the name “origami,” some people have begun using the process in quasi-artistic fashion. In an article recently published in Nature, bioengineers at CalTech led by Lulu Qian, Ph.D., assistant professor of bioengineering, showed they were able to produce a variety of shapes and designs using DNA origami, including a nanoscale replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

DNA now also has another unique artistic application — tattoos, although people’s opinions of whether tattooing constitutes art might vary. Edith Mathiowitz, Ph.D., of Brown University’s Center for Biomedical Engineering, is among the patenters of Everence, a technology that takes DNA provided by a customer and incorporates it into tattoo ink. Potential tattooees can now have the DNA of loved ones incorporated into their bodies permanently, if they should so wish.

People and Places

The University of Washington has launched its new Institute for Nano-engineered Systems, cutting the ribbon on the building on December 4. The center will house facilities dedicated to scalable nanomanufacturing and integrated photonics, among others. Meanwhile, at the University of Chicago, Rama Ranganathan, M.D., Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Institute for Molecular Engineering, will lead that college’s new Center for Physics of Evolving Systems. Congratulations!

Week in BioE (October 30, 2017)

Using Stem Cells to Repair Damaged Tissue

CCND2
Induced pluripotent stem cells

Repairing heart tissue after a heart attack is a major focus of tissue engineering. A key challenge here is keeping grafted cardiomyocytes in place within the tissue to promote repair. As we reported a couple of weeks ago, using tissue spheroids and nanowires is one approach to overcome this challenge. Another approach involves manipulating the cell cycle — the process by which normal cells reproduce, grow, and eventually die.

In the latest advance in cellular engineering for this purpose, Jianyi Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB) and T. Michael and Gillian Goodrich Endowed Chair of Engineering Leadership, published an article in Circulation Research showing how to control key cell-cycle activators to improve the success rate of cardiomyocyte transplants. Dr. Zhang and his coauthors, using a mouse model of myocardial infarction, engineered the transplanted cells so that they expressed much higher levels of cyclin d2, a protein that plays a key role in cell division. Cardiac function improved significantly, and infarct size decreased in mice receiving these engineered the cells. The authors plan to test their discovery next in larger animal models.

Use of stem cells in tissue regeneration isn’t limited to the heart, of course. Stephanie Willerth, Ph.D., Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Victoria in Canada, is one of two recipients from that school of an Ignite Award from the British Columbia Innovation Council. Dr. Willerth will use her award to create “bioink” for three-dimensional printers. The bioink will convert skin cells into pluripotent stem cells using technology developed by Aspect Biosystems, a biotech company in Vancouver. Once induced, the pluripotent stem cells can be converted again into a number of different cell types. Dr. Willerth’s specific focus is building brain tissue with this technology.

Making Music

Prosthetic limbs have been a standard of care for amputees and people with underdeveloped arms or legs. Many current prostheses are designed to resemble actual limbs and use myoelectrical interfaces to re-create normal movements. Alternatively, other prostheses designed for specific purposes, such as the Flex-Foot Cheetah prosthetic foot for running, do not resemble the human limb but are optimized for a specific prosthetic function.

Now, a group of undergraduate bioengineering students at George Mason University (GMU) produced a prosthetic arm to play the violin. The students, who were instructed by Laurence Bray, Ph.D., associate chair of the Department of Bioengineering at GMU, were connected with a local fifth grader from nearby Alexandria, Va., named Isabella Nicola. Nicola was born without a left hand and only part of her left arm, and she had been learning violin using a prosthesis designed for her by her music teacher. The teacher, a GMU alumnus, reached out the department for help.

The design team used a three-dimensional printer to create a prosthetic arm for Isabella. The prosthesis is made of durable, lightweight plastic and includes a built-in bow, which Isabella can use to play her instrument. The prosthesis is hot pink — the color of Isabella’s choosing. She can now play the violin much more easily than before. Whether a symphony chair is in her future is up to her.

People and Places

The University of New Hampshire will use a five-year Center of Biomedical Research Excellence grant by the National Institutes of Health to create the Center of Integrated Biomedical and Bioengineering Research. The center will unite several colleges under the rubric of bioengineering and biomedical engineering. Similarly, the University of Iowa will use a $1.4 million grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust, an Iowa-based charity, to add a biomedical engineering laboratory for its College of Engineering.

Finally, congratulations to University of Minnesota Ph.D. BME student Lizzy Crist, who has been named the NCAA’s Woman of the Year, for her undergraduate record as a scholar-athlete (soccer) at Washington University in St. Louis.  She joins last year’s winner, MIT biological engineering student Margaret Guo, a swimmer who is now an M.D./Ph.D. student at Stanford.

Week in BioE (August 25, 2017)

Beyond Sunscreen

skin cancer
The sun

Excessive exposure to the sun remains a leading cause of skin cancers. The common methods of protection, including sunscreens and clothing, are the main ways in which people practice prevention. Amazingly, new research shows that what we eat could affect our cancer risk from sun exposure as well.  Joseph S. Takahashi, Ph.D., who is chair of the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute, was one of a team of scientists who recently published a paper in Cell Reports that found that by restricting the times when animals ate, their relative risk from exposure to ultraviolet light could change dramatically.

We tend to think of circadian rhythms as being among the reasons why we get sleepy at night, but the skin has a circadian clock as well, and this clock regulates the expression of certain genes by the epidermis, the visible outermost layer of the skin. The Cell Reports study found that food intake also affected these changes in gene expression. Restricting the eating to time windows throughout a 24h cycle, rather than providing food all the time, led to reduced levels of a skin enzyme that repairs damaged DNA — the underlying cause of sun-induced skin cancer. The study was conducted in mice, so no firm conclusions about the effects in humans can be drawn yet, but avoiding midnight snacks could be beneficial to more than your weight.

Let’s Get Small

Nanotechnology is one of the most common buzzwords nowadays in engineering, and the possible applications in health are enormous. For example, using tiny particles to interfere with the cancer signaling could give us a tool to stop cancer progression far earlier than what is possible today. One of the most recent approaches is the use of star-shaped gold particles — gold nanostars — in combination with an antibody-based therapy to treat cancer.

The study authors, led by Tuan Vo-Dinh, Ph.D., the R. Eugene and Susie E. Goodson Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke, combined the gold nanostars with anti-PD-L1 antibodies. The antibodies target a protein that is expressed in a variety of cancer types. Focusing a laser on the gold nanostars heats up the particles, destroying the cancer cells bound to the nanoparticles. Unlike past nanoparticle designs, the star shape concentrate the energy from the laser at their tips, thus requiring less exposure to the laser. Studies using the nanostar technology in mice showed a significant improvement in the cure rate from primary and metastatic tumors, and a resistance to cancer when it was reintroduced months later.

Nanotechnology is not the only new frontier for cancer therapies. One very interesting area is using plant viruses as a platform to attack cancers. Plant viruses stimulate a natural response to fight tumor progression, and these are viewed by some as ‘nature’s nanoparticles’. The viruses are complex structures, and offer the possibility of genetic manipulation to make them even more effective in the future. At Case Western Reserve University, scientists led by Nicole Steinmetz, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering, used a virus that normally affects potatoes to deliver cancer drugs in mice. Reporting their findings in Nano Letters, the authors used potato virus X (PVX) to form nanoparticles that they injected into the tumors of mice with melanoma, alongside a widely used chemotherapy drug, doxorubicin. Tumor progression was halted. Most importantly, the co-administration of drug and virus was more effective than packing the drug in the virus before injection.  This co-administration approach is different than past studies that focus on packaging the drug into the nanoparticle first, and represents an important shift in the field.

Educating Engineers “Humanely”

Engineering curricula are nothing if not rigorous, and that level of rigor doesn’t leave much room for education in the humanities and social sciences. However, at Wake Forest University, an initiative led by founding dean of engineering Olga Pierrakos, Ph.D., will have 50 undergraduate engineering students enrolled in a new program at the college’s Downtown campus in Winston-Salem, N.C. The new curriculum plans for an equal distribution of general education/free electives relative to engineering coursework, with the expectation that the expansion of the liberal arts into and engineering degree will develop students with a broader perspective on how engineering can shape society.

People in the News

At the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Rashid Bashir, Ph.D., Grainger Distinguished Chair in Engineering and professor in the Department of Bioengineering, has been elevated to the position of executive associate dean and chief diversity officer at UIUC’s new Carle Illinois College of Medicine. The position began last week. Professor Michael Insana, Ph.D., replaces Dr. Bashir as department chair.

At the University of Virginia, Jeffrey W. Holmes, Ph.D., professor of biomedical engineering and medicine, will serve as the director of a new Center for Engineering in Medicine (CEM). The center is to be built using $10 million in funding over the next five years. The goal of the center is to increase the collaborations among engineers, physicians, nursing professionals, and biomedical scientists.

Macrophages Engineered Against Cancer Cells

macrophages Discher
Dennis Discher, Ph.D.

Dennis E. Discher, Ph.D., Robert D. Bent Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a secondary faculty member in the Department of Bioengineering, was the lead author on a recent study that showed that engineered macrophages (a type of immune cell) could be injected into mice, circulate through their bodies, and invade solid tumors in the mice, engulfing human cancers cells in the tumors.

According to Cory Alvey, a graduate student in pharmacology who works in Professor Discher’s lab and the first author on the paper, said, “Combined with cancer-specific targeting antibodies, these engineered macrophages swarm into solid tumors and rapidly drive regression of human tumors without any measurable toxicity.”

Read more here.

How Cells Spread in Fibrous Environments

New research by faculty in the University of Pennsylvania Department of Bioengineering is examining the interplay between cells and their environment and how they impact the cells’ ability to grow and spread, showing that stiffness is not the only factor researchers should consider when studying this process.

The relationship between cellular adhesion and spread is a key factor in cancer metastasis. Better understanding of this dynamic would improve diagnosis of the disease and provide a potential target in combating it; reducing the ability of cells to grip their environment could keep them contained.

 

fibrous environemnts
Vivek Shenoy (left) and Jason Burdick

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was led by Vivek Shenoy, professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, co-director of Penn’s Center for Engineering Mechanobiology, and a secondary faculty member in the Department of Bioengineering, along with Xuan Cao and Ehsan Ban, members of his lab. They collaborated with Jason Burdick, professor in the Department of Bioengineering, Boston University’s Christopher Chen, the University of Michigan’s Brendon Baker and the University of Hong Kong’s Yuan Lin.

This collaboration reflects work of The Center for Engineering Mechanobiology, a National Science Foundation-funded Science and Technology Center that supports interdisciplinary research on the way cells exert and are influenced by the physical forces in their environment.

​​​​​​​Previous work from Shenoy’s group has shown that the relationship between cancer cells and the extracellular matrix is dynamic, containing feedback mechanisms that can change the ECM’s properties, including overall stiffness. One earlier study investigated how cancer cells attempt to strike a balance in the density of the fibrous netting surrounding them. If there are too few fibers to grip, the cells can’t get enough traction to move. If there are too many, the holes in the net become too small for the cells to pass through.

Read more at the Penn Engineering blog.