Bioengineering Graduate Jason Andrechak Wins Graduate Leadership Award

Jason Andrechak

Congratulations to recent Penn Bioengineering graduate Jason Andrechak on winning a Graduate Leadership Awards for 2022. Each year a select number of students across the university are recognized for their service and lasting contributions to graduate student life at Penn. Andrechak, one of only ten recipients in 2022, won a Dr. Andy Binns Award for Outstanding Service to Graduate and Professional Student Life. This award is presented to “graduate or professional students, upon their graduation from Penn, who have significantly impacted graduate and professional student life through service involvement in student life initiatives or organizations.” Andrechak won this award for his “service and leadership in advocating for equity and accessibility during the transition to virtual operations and following a period of leadership transition within the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GAPSA). ”

Andrechak completed his Ph.D. in Bioengineering in 2022, where he studied macrophage immunotherapy in solid tumors in the lab of Dennis E. Discher, Robert D. Bent Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Bioengineering, and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. He was named a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow in 2018. He has actively led the Graduate Association of Bioengineers (GABE) as Community Service & Outreach chair from 2017-2019 and as co-President from 2019-2022. He also served as the Director of Equity & Access for the Graduate & Professional Student Assembly (GAPSA) from 2020-2021, in addition to several other service and advisory roles at the department, school, and university levels.

Learn more about the Penn Graduate Leadership Awards and read the full list of recipients on the Grad Center at Penn website.

Newly Discovered ‘Encrypted Peptides’ Found in Human Plasma Exhibit Antibiotic Properties

by Melissa Pappas

The antimicrobial peptides the researchers studied are “encrypted” in that they are contained within Apolipoprotein B, a blood plasma protein that is not directly involved in the immune response, but are not normally expressed on their own.

The rise of drug-resistant bacteria infections is one of the world’s most severe global health issues, estimated to cause 10 million deaths annually by the year 2050. Some of the most virulent and antibiotic-resistant bacterial pathogens are the leading cause of life-threatening, hospital-acquired infections, particularly dangerous for immunocompromised and critically ill patients. Traditional and continual synthesis of antibiotics will simply not be able to keep up with bacteria evolution.

To avoid the continual process of synthesizing new antibiotics to target bacteria as they evolve, Penn Engineers have looked at a new, natural resource for antibiotic molecules.

César de la Fuente, Ph.D.

A recent study on the search for encrypted peptides with antimicrobial properties in the human proteome has located naturally occurring antibiotics within our own bodies. By using an algorithm to pinpoint specific sequences in our protein code, a team of Penn researchers along with collaborators, led by César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Psychiatry, Bioengineering, Microbiology, and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Marcelo Torres, a post doc in de la Fuente’s lab, were able to locate novel peptides, or amino acid chains, that when cleaved, indicated their potential to fend off harmful bacteria.

Now, in a new study published in ACS Nano, the team along with Angela Cesaro, the lead author and post doc in de la Fuente’s lab, have identified three distinct antimicrobial peptides derived from a protein in human plasma and demonstrate their abilities in mouse models. Angela Cesaro performed a great part of the activities during her PhD under the supervision of corresponding author, Professor Angela Arciello, from the University of Naples Federico II. The collaborative study also includes Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

“We identified the cardiovascular system as a hot spot for potential antimicrobials using an algorithmic approach,” says de la Fuente. “Then we looked closer at a specific protein in the plasma.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

A Protein Controlled by both Light and Temperature May Open Doors to Understanding Disease-related Cell Signal Pathways

by Melissa Pappas

The brighter edges of the cells in the middle and upper right panels show the optogenetic proteins collecting at the membrane after light exposure. At higher temperatures, however, the proteins become rapidly inactivated and thus do not stay at the membrane, resulting in the duller edges seen in the bottom right panel.

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, Bomyi Lim, and Brian Chow

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.

Read more in Penn Engineering Today.

Daniel A. Hammer Named Director of Center for Precision Engineering for Health

Daniel Hammer
Daniel Hammer, Ph.D.

by Evan Lerner

Earlier this year, Penn President Amy Gutmann and Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, announced a $100 million commitment to accelerate innovations in medical technologies. Called the Center for Precision Engineering for Health (CPE4H), the initiative aims to bring together researchers from a wide range of fields to develop customizable biomaterials and implantable devices that can be tailored for individualized diagnostics, treatments and therapies.

Now, Daniel A. Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in Penn Engineering’s Departments of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has been named CPE4H’s inaugural director.

“Penn is a unique environment where innovations in healthcare can emerge very rapidly, as we’ve seen with the development of CAR-T cancer immunotherapy, and the design and delivery of mRNA vaccines,” Hammer says. “Engineering plays a central role in making those technologies functional and maximizing their impact, and CPE4H is a golden opportunity to take these technologies to the next level in a way that actually helps people.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

César de La Fuente Uses AI to Discover Germ-fighting Peptides

César de la Fuente, PhD

The impending danger of bacterial resistance to antibiotics is well-documented within the scientific community. Bacteria are the most efficient evolvers, and their ability to develop tolerance to drugs, in addition to antibiotic overuse and misuse, means that researchers have had to get particularly resourceful to ensure the future of modern medicine.  

Presidential Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, Microbiology, Psychiatry, and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering César de la Fuente and his team are using an algorithm to search the human genome for microbe-fighting peptides. So far, the team has synthesized roughly 55 peptides that, when tested against popular drug-resistant microbes such as the germ responsible for staph infections, have proven to prevent bacteria from replicating.  

WIRED’s Max G. Levy recently spoke with de la Fuente and postdoctoral researcher and study collaborator Marcelo Torres about the urgency of the team’s work, and why developing these solutions is critical to the survival of civilization as we know it. The team’s algorithm, based on pattern recognition software used to analyze images, makes an otherwise insurmountable feat tangible.  

De la Fuente’s lab specializes in using AI to discover and design new drugs. Rather than making some all-new peptide molecules that fit the bill, they hypothesized that an algorithm could use machine learning to winnow down the huge repository of natural peptide sequences in the human proteome into a select few candidates.

“We know those patterns—the multiple patterns—that we’re looking for,” says de la Fuente. “So that allows us to use the algorithm as a search function.”

Read Max G. Levy’s An AI Finds Superbug-Killing Potential in Human Proteins” at WIRED. 

This story previously appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

BE Seminar: “Tissue-Inspired Synthetic Biomaterials” (Shelly Peyton)

Shelly R. Peyton, Ph.D.

Speaker: Shelly R. Peyton, Ph.D.
Professor, Armstrong Professional Development Professor
Chemical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering Adjunct
College of Engineering
University of Massachusetts Amherst

Date: Thursday, December 9, 2021
Time: 3:30-4:30 PM EST
Zoom – check email for link
This seminar will be held virtually, but students registered for BE 699 can gather to watch in Moore 216.

Abstract: Improved experimental model systems are critically needed to better understand cancer progression and bridge the gap between lab bench proof-of-concept studies, validation in animal models, and eventual clinical application. Many methods exist to create biomaterials, including hydrogels, which we use to study cells in contexts more akin to what they experience in the human body. Our lab has multiple approaches to create such biomaterials, based on combinations of poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG) with peptides and zwitterions. In this presentation, I will discuss our synthetic approaches to building life-like materials, how we use these systems to grow cells and understand how a cell’s environment, particularly the extracellular matrix regulates cancer cell growth, dormancy, and drug sensitivity.

Shelly Peyton Bio: Shelly Peyton is the Armstrong Professor and Graduate Program Director, and chair of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee of Chemical Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is co-director of the Models 2 Medicine Center in the Institute for Applied Life Sciences. She received her B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Northwestern University in 2002 and went on to obtain her MS and PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of California, Irvine. She was then an NIH Kirschstein post-doctoral fellow in the Biological Engineering department at MIT before starting her academic appointment at UMass in 2011. Shelly leads an interdisciplinary group of engineers and molecular cell biologists seeking to create and apply novel biomaterials platforms toward new solutions to grand challenges in human health. Her lab’s unique approach is using our engineering expertise to build simplified models of human tissue with synthetic biomaterials. They use these systems to understand 1) the physical relationship between metastatic breast cancer cells and the tissues to which they spread, 2) the role of matrix remodeling in drug resistance, and 3) how to create bioinspired mechanically dynamic and activatable biomaterials. Among other honors for her work, Shelly was a 2013 Pew Biomedical Scholar, received a New Innovator Award from the NIH, and she was awarded a CAREER grant from the NSF. Shelly is co-PI with Jeanne Hardy on the Biotechnology (BTP) NIH T32 program and is a co-PI of the PREP program at UMass, which brings students from URM groups to UMass for a 1-year post-BS study to help prepare them for graduate school.

BE Seminar: “Ionic Liquid-based Therapeutics” (Samir Mitragotri)

Samir Mitragotri, Ph.D.

Speaker: Samir Mitragotri, Ph.D.
Hiller Professor of Bioengineering and Hansjorg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering
John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Harvard University

Date: Thursday, November 18, 2021
Time: 3:30-4:30 PM EST
Zoom – check email for link or contact ksas@seas.upenn.edu
This seminar will be held virtually, but students registered for BE 699 can gather to watch in Moore 216.

Abstract: Ionic liquids, the liquid salts comprising organic anions and cations, offer exciting opportunities for several therapeutic applications. Their tunable properties offer control over their design and function. Starting with biocompatible ions, we synthesized a library of ionic liquids and explored them for various drug delivery applications. Ionic liquids provided unique advantages including overcoming the biological transport barriers of skin, buccal mucosa and the intestinal epithelium. At the same time, they also stabilized proteins and nucleic acids and enabled the delivery of biologics across these barriers. Ionic liquids also provided unique biological functions including adjuvancy towards vaccines and antimicrobial function. I will present an overview of the design features of ionic liquids and novel biomedical applications enabled by these unique materials.

Samir Mitragotri Bio: Samir Mitragotri is the Hiller Professor of Bioengineering and Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. His research is focused on transdermal, oral, and targeted drug delivery systems. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Medicine and National Academy of Inventors. He is also a foreign member of Indian National Academy of Engineering. He is also an elected fellow of AAAS, CRS, BMES, AIMBE, and AAPS. He is an author of over 350 publications, an inventor on over 200 patent/patent applications, and a Clarivate Highly Cited Researcher. He received his BS in Chemical Engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology, India and a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the Editor-in-Chief of AIChE’s and SBE’s journal Bioengineering and Translational Medicine.

Penn Researchers Show ‘Encrypted’ Peptides Could be Wellspring of Natural Antibiotics

by Melissa Pappas

César de la Fuente, Ph.D.

While biologists and chemists race to develop new antibiotics to combat constantly mutating bacteria, predicted to lead to 10 million deaths by 2050, engineers are approaching the problem through a different lens: finding naturally occurring antibiotics in the human genome.

The billions of base pairs in the genome are essentially one long string of code that contains the instructions for making all of the molecules the body needs. The most basic of these molecules are amino acids, the building blocks for peptides, which in turn combine to form proteins. However, there is still much to learn about how — and where — a particular set of instructions are encoded.

Now, bringing a computer science approach to a life science problem, an interdisciplinary team of Penn researchers have used a carefully designed algorithm to discover a new suite of antimicrobial peptides, hiding deep within this code.

The study, published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, was led by César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, Microbiology, Psychiatry, and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, spanning both Penn Engineering and Penn Medicine, and his postdocs Marcelo Torres and Marcelo Melo. Collaborators Orlando Crescenzi and Eugenio Notomista of the University of Naples Federico II also contributed to this work.

“The human body is a treasure trove of information, a biological dataset. By using the right tools, we can mine for answers to some of the most challenging questions,” says de la Fuente. “We use the word ‘encrypted’ to describe the antimicrobial peptides we found because they are hidden within larger proteins that seem to have no connection to the immune system, the area where we expect to find this function.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Penn Bioengineering Alumna Cynthia Reinhart-King is President Elect of BMES

Dr. Cynthia Reinhart-King, Engineering, BME, Photo by Joe Howell

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.

In a Q&A on the BMES Blog, Reinhart-King said that:

“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.

NSF Grant Will Support Research into Sustainable Manufacturing of 3D Solid-state Sodium-ion Batteries and Battery Workforce Training

by Melissa Pappas

The Department of Materials Science and Engineering’s Eric Detsi will lead a team of researchers, including MSE’s Eric Stach and Russell Composto, to develop more eco-friendly batteries that are based on sodium, rather than lithium.

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are becoming more ubiquitous, thanks to their use in emerging applications such as battery electric vehicles and grid-scale energy storage, however, these batteries are inefficiently manufactured and unsustainably sourced.

The typical battery cell consists of a separator membrane filled with liquid electrolyte, sandwiched between the negative anode and positive cathode. This design has several drawbacks, including a complex and energy-intensive manufacturing process, inefficient recycling, and increased safety risks as the liquid electrolyte is flammable and crystallization between the electrodes can lead to explosions. Finally, there are substantial geopolitical and environmental risks associated with the global supply chain for lithium-ion battery materials, such as cobalt and lithium.

The solid-state battery design addresses these issues. In solid-state batteries, the flammable liquid electrolyte is replaced by a solid electrolyte, making them safer and more energy efficient. Sodium-ion batteries address the issue of sustainable material sourcing as sodium is more abundant than lithium and cobalt, the materials used in lithium-ion batteries. Both solid-state lithium-ion batteries and sodium-ion batteries are very attractive for battery electric vehicles and grid-scale energy storage applications.

However, current solid-state battery designs also suffer from two major drawbacks: a low capacity for power storage and a resistance to charge transfer.

 To tackle the unsustainability in battery materials and the inefficiency of the current solid-state design, the National Science Foundation has awarded a team of Penn Engineers $2.7 Million in funding through its Future Manufacturing program. The team will be led by Eric Detsi, Stephenson Term Assistant Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), and will include Eric Stach, Professor in MSE and Director of the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter, and Russell Composto, Howell Family Faculty Fellow and Professor in MSE with appointments in the Departments of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

“Our team will investigate a novel ‘Eco Manufacturing’ route to a 3D solid-state sodium-ion battery based on polymer solid-electrolytes,” says Detsi. “Our Eco Manufacturing approach will enable us to create batteries from only abundant elements, achieve ultralong battery cycle life, prevent sodium-dendrite-induced short-circuiting by using a ‘self-healing’ metal anode that can transform into liquid when the battery is operating, and efficiently recycle the battery’s anode and cathode. We will also improve the manufacturing process by using time- and energy-efficient processes including direct ink writing, solid-state conversion, and infiltration.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.