Since the success of the COVID-19 vaccine, RNA therapies have been the object of increasing interest in the biotech world. These therapies work with your body to target the genetic root of diseases and infections, a promising alternative treatment method to that of traditional pharmaceutical drugs.
Lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) have been successfully used in drug delivery for decades. FDA-approved therapies use them as vehicles for delivering messenger RNA (mRNA), which prompts the cell to make new proteins, and small interfering RNA (siRNA), which instruct the cell to silence or inhibit the expression of certain proteins.
The biggest challenge in developing a successful RNA therapy is its targeted delivery. Research is now confronting the current limitations of LNPs, which have left many diseases without an effective RNA therapy.
Liver fibrosis occurs when the liver is repeatedly damaged and the healing process results in the accumulation of scar tissue, impeding healthy liver function. It is a chronic disease characterized by the buildup of excessive collagen-rich extracellular matrix (ECM). Liver fibrosis has remained challenging to treat using RNA therapies due to a lack of delivery systems for targeting activated liver-resident fibroblasts. Both the solid fibroblast structure and the lack of specificity or affinity to target these fibroblasts has impeded current LNPs from entering activated liver-resident fibroblasts, and thus they are unable to deliver RNA therapeutics.
To tackle this issue and help provide a treatment for the millions of people who suffer from this chronic disease, Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering, and postdoctoral fellows Xuexiang Han and Ningqiang Gong, found a new way to synthesize ligand-tethered LNPs, increasing their selectivity and allowing them to target liver fibroblasts.
Lulu Xue, Margaret Billingsley, Rakan El-Mayta, Sarah J. Shepherd, Mohamad-Gabriel Alameh and Drew Weissman, Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research and Director of the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation at the Perelman School of Medicine, also contributed to this work.
Bella Mirro, a fourth year student in Bioengineering who also minors in Chemistry, spoke with 34th Street Magazine about her many roles at Penn, including being Co–President of Shelter Health Outreach Program (SHOP), a Research Assistant in lab of Michal A. Elovitz, the Hilarie L. Morgan and Mitchell L. Morgan President’s Distinguished Professor in Women’s Health at Penn Medicine, and a Penn Engineering Council Marketing Team Member. In this Q&A, she discusses her research in women’s health and her passions for accessible healthcare, serving Philadelphia’s homeless community, and good food.
Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering, is one of this year’s recipients of the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award. The award is given to early-career faculty researchers who demonstrate the potential to be role models in their field and invest in the outreach and education of their work.
Mitchell’s award will fund research on techniques for “immunoengineering” macrophages. By providing new instructions to these cells via nanoparticles laden with mRNA and DNA sequences, the immune system could be trained to target and eliminate solid tumors. The award will also support graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in his lab over the next five years.
The project aligns with Mitchell’s larger research goals and the current explosion of interest in therapies that use mRNA, thanks to the technological breakthroughs that enabled the development of COVID-19 vaccines.
“The development of the COVID vaccine using mRNA has opened doors for other cell therapies,” says Mitchell. “The high-priority area of research that we are focusing on is oncological therapies, and there are multiple applications for mRNA engineering in the fight against cancer.”
A new wave of remarkably effective cancer treatments incorporates chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy. There, a patient’s T-cells, a type of white blood cell that fights infections, are genetically engineered to identify, target and kill individual cancer cells that accumulate in the circulatory system.
However, despite CART-T therapy’s success in treating certain blood cancers, the approach is not effective against cancers that form solid tumors. Because T-cells are not able to penetrate tumors’ fibrous barriers, Mitchell and his colleagues have turned to another part of the immune system for help.
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.”
William Danon and Luka Yancopoulos, winners of the 2022 President’s Innovation Prize, will offer a software solution to make the health care supply chain more efficient.
by Brandon Baker
William Danon and Luka Yancopoulos are best friends. They’re also business partners.
The duo, who received this year’s President’s Innovation Prize (PIP) for Grapevine, met during sophomore year, connected through Yancopoulos’ roommate. As time went on, they did everything together: cooked meals, played basketball, and read and discussed fantasy novels.
“We spent a lot of time together,” Danon says.
It was only natural, then, that when the time came to start an actual venture, they’d do it together.
“They’re like brothers, in a very good way,” says mentor David Meaney of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, who describes their working dynamic as “complementary.” “I think that will serve them well. Most of what we do in faculty is collaborative, and I see elements of that in their partnership. I give them credit for stepping out and doing something unusual and keeping at it.”
How Grapevine came to be
Grapevine is a software solution and professional networking platform that connects small-to-medium-size players in the health care supply chain. It’s a sort of two-pronged solution: It helps institutions like hospital systems connect disjointed operations like procurement and inventory management internally, but also serves as a glue between these institutions and purveyors of medical equipment.
“William and Luka are impact-driven entrepreneurs whose collaborative synergies will take them far,” says Penn Interim President Wendell Pritchett. “The software provided by Grapevine is poised to reinvent how the health care industry buys and sells medical supplies and services and, truly, could not come at a timelier moment.”
The company is the evolution of a project they began at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, called Pandemic Relief Supply, which delivered $20 million of health care supplies to frontline workers.
“My mom was a nurse practitioner at New York Presbyterian Hospital, the largest hospital in the United States, and she was coming home with horror stories,” recalls Yancopoulos. “In surgery or the ER, a surgeon had to put on a garbage bag because they didn’t have a gown. And they gave her one mask to use for the rest of the month, and I’m seeing on the news, ‘Don’t wear a mask for more than three days.’”
This is where Yancopoulos and Danon first developed an interest in the health care supply chain. Using a database Penn allows students access to that maps the import of any good in the country, they did keyword matching to identify instreams of different goods and handed off findings to New York Presbyterian procurement staff. When McKesson, the largest provider of health care products and services in the U.S., took notice of what they were doing and reached out, they realized they were onto something. In response to their success, they started a company called Pandemic Relief Supply to distribute reliable medical supplies, including items like medical-grade masks and gloves, to frontline workers in the healthcare space.
As time passed, that project evolved into something larger: Grapevine.
In short, Grapevine’s software creates a professional networking platform to resolve miscommunications between suppliers and buyers, as well as adds a layer of transparency between interactants. Suppliers on the platform display real-time data about their inventory and shipping process, with timestamps; this prohibits companies from cherry-picking data or making false claims and creates a more health-care-supply-specific space for companies to interact than, say, LinkedIn.
“Primarily, the first step is we want people to use it internally, and streamline operations, and then through that centralized operational data, you can push that externally and that’s where [Grapevine] becomes a connector,” explains Danon. “Because when you’re choosing to connect with someone, the reason you can do so way more efficiently or quickly, is that data is actual operational data.”
To accomplish this level of transparency, the beginnings of Grapevine involved lots of legwork. Last year, the duo moved to Los Angeles to take stock of what suppliers existed where, and how reliable they were. They realized that many suppliers existed around Los Angeles because of port access; many medical supplies are imported from Asia. Their time in LA made the problem feel even more tangible, they agree.
“We were able to see people were doing outdated processes—manual processes—because there’s no other option,” Danon says. “So, we said, ‘Let’s get out there and do some work to be digital and technologically innovative.”
N.B.: Yancopolous’s senior design team created “Harvest” for their capstone project in Bioengineering, building on the existing Grapevine software package. Read Harvest’s abstract and view their final presentation on the BE Labs website.
University of Pennsylvania Interim President Wendell Pritchett announced the recipients of the 2022 President’s Engagement, Innovation, and Sustainability Prizes. Awarded annually, the Prizes empower Penn students to design and undertake post-graduation projects that make a positive, lasting difference in the world. Each Prize-winning project will receive $100,000, as well as a $50,000 living stipend per team member.
A Penn Bioengineering student is behind one of the prize-winning projects. Grapevine, winner of the President’s Innovation Prize, aims to increase resilience within the healthcare supply chain. BE senior Lukas Achilles Yancopoulos and his partner William Kohler Danon created Grapevine, and Lukas went on to adapt the Grapevine software into his award-winning senior design project Harvest by Grapevine along with team members Nicole Bedanova, Kerry Blatney, Blake Grimes, Brenner Maull.
“This year’s Prize recipients have selflessly dedicated themselves to improving environmental, health, and educational outcomes for others,” said Pritchett. “From empowering young people through free creative writing education to building robotics that minimize fish waste to reducing microfiber pollution in the ocean, these outstanding and inspiring projects exemplify the vision and passion of our Penn students, who are deeply committed to making a positive difference in the world.”
William Kohler Danon and Lukas Achilles Yancopoulos for Grapevine: Danon, a history major in the College of Arts and Sciences from Miami, and Yancopoulos, an environmental studies major in the College and a bioengineering major in the School of Engineering and Applied Science from Yorktown Heights, New York, will work to increase resilience across the health care supply chain, with a particular focus on small-to-medium businesses. Grapevine builds upon Danon and Yancopoulos’sinspiring work with Pandemic Relief Supply, a venture that delivered $20 million of health care supplies to frontline workers at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are mentored by David F. Meaney, the Solomon R. Pollack Professor of Bioengineering and senior associate dean for Penn Engineering.
Read about all the winning projects at Penn Today.
We hope you will join us for the Spring 2022 Herman P. Schwan Distinguished Lecture by Dr. Drew Weissman, hosted by the Department of Bioengineering.
Date: Tuesday, March 29, 2022
Time: 3:30-5:00 PM
Location: Bodek Lounge, Houston Hall Reception to follow Zoom Link
Speaker:Drew Weissman, M.D., Ph.D.
Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research, Department of Medicine
Perelman School of Medicine
University of Pennsylvania
Vaccines prevent 4-5 million deaths a year making them the principal tool of medical intervention worldwide. Nucleoside-modified mRNA was developed over 15 years ago and has become the darling of the COVID-19 pandemic with the first 2 FDA approved vaccines based on it. These vaccines show greater than 90% efficacy and outstanding safety in clinical use. The mechanism for the outstanding immune response induction are the prolonged production of antigen leading to continuous loading of germinal centers and the adjuvant effect of the LNPs, which selectively stimulate T follicular helper cells that drive germinal center responses. Vaccine against many pathogens, including HIV, HCV, HSV2, CMV, universal influenza, coronavirus variants, pancoronavirus, nipah, norovirus, malaria, TB, and many others are currently in development. Nucleoside-modified mRNA is also being developed for therapeutic protein delivery. Clinical trials with mRNA encoded monoclonal antibodies are underway and many other therapeutic or genetic deficient proteins are being developed. Finally, nucleoside-modified mRNA-LNPs are being developed and used for gene therapy. Cas9 knockout to treat transthyretin amyloidosis has shown success in phase 1 trials. We have developed the ability to target specific cells and organs, including lung, brain, heart, CD4+ cells, all T cells, and bone marrow stem cells, with LNPs allowing specific delivery of gene editing and insertion systems to treat diseases such as sickle cell anemia, Nucleoside-modified mRNA will have an enormous potential in the development of new medical therapies.
Drew Weissman, M.D., Ph.D. is a professor of Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. He received his graduate degrees from Boston University School of Medicine. Dr. Weissman, in collaboration with Dr. Katalin Karikó, discovered the ability of modified nucleosides in RNA to suppress activation of innate immune sensors and increase the translation of mRNA containing certain modified nucleosides. The nucleoside-modified mRNA-lipid nanoparticle vaccine platform Dr. Weissman’s lab created is used in the first 2 approved COVID-19 vaccines by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. They continue to develop other vaccines that induce potent antibody and T cell responses with mRNA–based vaccines. Dr. Weissman’s lab also develops methods to replace genetically deficient proteins, edit the genome, and specifically target cells and organs with mRNA-LNPs, including lung, heart, brain, CD4+ cells, all T cells, and bone marrow stem cells.
About the Schwan Lecture:
The Herman P. Schwan Distinguished Lecture is in honor of one of the founding members of the Department of Bioengineering, who emigrated from Germany after World War II and helped create the field of bioengineering in the US. It recognizes people with a similar transformative impact on the field of bioengineering.
Penn Engineering secured a multi-million-dollar contract with Wellcome Leap under the organization’s $60 million RNA Readiness + Response (R3) program, which is jointly funded with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). Penn Engineers aim to create “on-demand” manufacturing technology that can produce a range of RNA-based vaccines.
The Penn Engineering team features Daeyeon Lee, Evan C Thompson Term Chair for Excellence in Teaching and Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, David Issadore, Associate Professor in Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, and Sagar Yadavali, a former postdoctoral researcher in the Issadore and Lee labs and now the CEO of InfiniFluidics, a spinoff company based on their research. Drew Weissman of the Perelman School of Medicine, whose foundational research directly continued to the development of mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines, is also a part of this interdisciplinary team.
The success of these COVID-19 vaccines has inspired a fresh perspective and wave of research funding for RNA therapeutics across a wide range of difficult diseases and health issues. These therapeutics now need to be equitably and efficiently distributed, something currently limited by the inefficient mRNA vaccine manufacturing processes which would rapidly translate technologies from the lab to the clinic.
Now, in her latest exhibition, Kamen has created a series of pieces that highlight how the creative processes in art and science are interconnected. In “Reveal: The Art of Reimagining Scientific Discovery,” Kamen chronicles her own artistic process while providing a space for self-reflection that enables viewers to see the relationship between science, art, and their own creativity.
“Reveal: The Art of Reimagining Scientific Discovery,” presented by the Alper Initiative for Washington Art and curated by Sarah Tanguy, is on display at the American University Museum in Washington, D.C., until Dec. 12.
The exhbition catalog, which includes an essay on “Radicle Curiosity” by Perry Zurn and Dani S. Bassett, can be viewed online.
COVID-19 vaccines are just the beginning for mRNA-based therapies; enabling a patient’s body to make almost any given protein could revolutionize care for other viruses, like HIV, as well as various cancers and genetic disorders. However, because mRNA molecules are very fragile, they require extremely low temperatures for storage and transportation. The logistical challenges and expense of maintaining these temperatures must be overcome before mRNA therapies can become truly widespread.
With these challenges in mind, Penn Engineering researchers are developing a new manufacturing technique that would be able to produce mRNA sequences on demand and on-site, isolating them in a way that removes the need for cryogenic temperatures. With more labs able to make and store mRNA-based therapeutics on their own, the “cold chain” between manufacturer and patient can be made shorter, faster and less expensive.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is supporting this project, known as Distributed Ribonucleic Acid Manufacturing, or DReAM, through a four-year, $2 million grant from its Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) program.
The project will be led by Daeyeon Lee, Evan C Thompson Term Chair for Excellence in Teaching and Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), along with Kathleen Stebe, Richer and Elizabeth Goodwin Professor in CBE and in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. They will collaborate with Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering, Drexel University’s Masoud Soroush and Michael Grady, the University of Oklahoma’s Dimitrios Papavassiliou and the University of Colorado Boulder’s Joel Kaar.