The sting of a toothache or the discovery of a cavity is a universal dread. Dental caries, more commonly known as tooth decay, is an insidious adversary, taking a toll on millions of mouths worldwide. Caries can lead to pain, tooth loss, infection, and, in severe cases, even death.
While fluoride-based treatments have long been the gold standard in dentistry, this singular approach is now dated and has limited effect. Current treatments do not sufficiently control biofilm—the main culprit behind dental caries—and prevent enamel demineralization at the same time. This dual dilemma becomes particularly pronounced in high-risk populations where the onset of the disease can be both rapid and severe.
“Traditional treatments often come short in managing the complex biofilm environment in the mouth,” Koo, senior co-author on the study, says. “Our combined treatment not only amplifies the effectiveness of each agent but does so with a lower dosage, hinting at a potentially revolutionary method for caries prevention in high-risk individuals.”
David Cormode is an associate professor of radiology and bioengineering with appointments in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Other authors are Yue Huang, Nil Kanatha Pandey, Shrey Shah, and Jessica C. Hsu of Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine; Yuan Liu, Aurea Simon-Soro, Zhi Ren, Zhenting Xiaang, Dongyeop Kim, Tatsuro Ito, Min Jun Oh, and Yong Li of Penn’s School of Dental Medicine; Paul. J Smeets, Sarah Boyer, Xingchen Zhao, and Derk Joester of Northwestern University; and Domenick T. Zero of Indiana University.
The work was supported by the National Institute of Health (grants R01-DE025848 and TL1TR001423 and awards S10OD026871 and R90DE031532) and the National Science Foundation (awards ECCS-2025633 and DMR-1720139).
Infections caused by fungi, such as Candida albicans, pose a significant global health risk due to their resistance to existing treatments, so much so that the World Health Organization has highlighted this as a priority issue.
Although nanomaterials show promise as antifungal agents, current iterations lack the potency and specificity needed for quick and targeted treatment, leading to prolonged treatment times and potential off-target effects and drug resistance.
“Candida forms tenacious biofilm infections that are particularly hard to treat,” Koo says. “Current antifungal therapies lack the potency and specificity required to quickly and effectively eliminate these pathogens, so this collaboration draws from our clinical knowledge and combines Ed’s team and their robotic expertise to offer a new approach.”
The team of researchers is a part of Penn Dental’s Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry, an initiative that leverages engineering and computational approaches to uncover new knowledge for disease mitigation and advance oral and craniofacial health care innovation.
For this paper, published in Advanced Materials, the researchers capitalized on recent advancements in catalytic nanoparticles, known as nanozymes, and they built miniature robotic systems that could accurately target and quickly destroy fungal cells. They achieved this by using electromagnetic fields to control the shape and movements of these nanozyme microrobots with great precision.
“The methods we use to control the nanoparticles in this study are magnetic, which allows us to direct them to the exact infection location,” Steager says. “We use iron oxide nanoparticles, which have another important property, namely that they’re catalytic.”
Other authors include Min Jun Oh, Alaa Babeer, Yuan Liu, Zhi Ren, Zhenting Xiang, Yilan Miao, and Chider Chen of Penn Dental; and David P. Cormode and Seokyoung Yoon of the Perelman School of Medicine. Cormode also holds a secondary appointment in Bioengineering.
This research was supported in part by the National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research (R01 DE025848, R56 DE029985, R90DE031532 and; the Basic Science Research Program through the National Research Foundation of Korea of the Ministry of Education (NRF-2021R1A6A3A03044553).
In response to the unprecedented challenges presented by the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, Penn Bioengineering’s faculty, students, and staff are finding innovative ways of pivoting their research and academic projects to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. Though these projects are all works in progress, I think it is vitally important to keep those in our broader communities informed of the critical contributions our people are making. Whether adapting current research to focus on COVID-19, investing time, technology, and equipment to help health care infrastructure, or creating new outreach and educational programs for students, I am incredibly proud of the way Penn Bioengineering is making a difference. I invite you to read more about our ongoing projects below.
Novel Chest X-Ray Contrast
David Cormode, Associate Professor of Radiology and Bioengineering
The Cormode and Noel labs are working to develop dark-field X-ray imaging, which may prove very helpful for COVID patients. It involves fabricating diffusers that incorporate gold nanoparticles to modify the X-ray beam. This method gives excellent images of lung structure. Chest X-ray is being used on the front lines for COVID patients, and this could potentially be an easy to implement modification of existing X-ray systems. The additional data give insight into the health state of the microstructures (alveoli) in the lung. This new contrast mechanics could be an early insight into the disease status of COVID-19 patients. For more on this research, see Cormode and Noel’s chapter in the forthcoming volume Spectral, Photon Counting Computed Tomography: Technology and Applications, edited by Katsuyuki Taguchi, Ira Blevis, and Krzysztof Iniewski (Routledge 2020).
Computational Models for Targeting Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). The severe forms of COVID-19 infections resulting in death proceeds by the propagation of the acute respiratory distress syndrome or ARDS. In ARDS, the lungs fill up with fluid preventing oxygenation and effective delivery of therapeutics through the inhalation route. To overcome this major limitation, delivery of antiinflammatory drugs through the vasculature (IV injection) is a better approach; however, the high injected dose required can lead to toxicity. A group of undergraduate and postdoctoral researchers in the Radhakrishnan Lab (Emma Glass, Christina Eng, Samaneh Farokhirad, and Sreeja Kandy) are developing a computational model that can design drug-filled nanoparticles and target them to the inflamed lung regions. The model combines different length-scales, (namely, pharmacodynamic factors at the organ scale, hydrodynamic and transport factors in the tissue scale, and nanoparticle-cell interaction at the subcellular scale), into one integrated framework. This targeted approach can significantly decrease the required dose for combating ARDS. This project is done in collaboration with Clinical Scientist Dr. Jacob Brenner, who is an attending ER Physician in Penn Medicine. This research is adapted from prior findings published in Volume 13, Issue 4 of Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine: “Mechanisms that determine nanocarrier targeting to healthy versus inflamed lung regions” (May 2017).
Sydney Shaffer, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
Arjun Raj, David Issadore, and Sydney Shaffer are working on developing an integrated, rapid point-of-care diagnostic for SARS-CoV-2 using single molecule RNA FISH. The platform currently in development uses sequence specific fluorescent probes that bind to the viral RNA when it is present. The fluorescent probes are detected using a iPhone compatible point-of-care reader device that determines whether the specimen is infected or uninfected. As the entire assay takes less than 10 minutes and can be performed with minimal equipment, we envision that this platform could ultimately be used for screening for active COVID19 at doctors’ offices and testing sites. Support for this project will come from a recently-announced IRM Collaborative Research Grant from the Institute of Regenerative Medicine with matching funding provided by the Departments of Bioengineering and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) (PI’s: Sydney Shaffer, Sara Cherry, Ophir Shalem, Arjun Raj). This research is adapted from findings published in the journal Lab on a Chip: “Multiplexed detection of viral infections using rapid in situ RNA analysis on a chip” (Issue 15, 2015). See also United States Provisional Patent Application Serial No. 14/900,494 (2014): “Methods for rapid ribonucleic acid fluorescence in situ hybridization” (Inventors: Raj A., Shaffer S.M., Issadore D.).
HEALTH CARE INFRASTRUCTURE
Penn Health-Tech Coronavirus COVID-19 Collaborations
Brian Litt, Professor of Bioengineering, Neurology, and Neurosurgery
In his role as one of the faculty directors for Penn Health-Tech, Professor Brian Litt is working closely with me to facilitate all the rapid response team initiatives, and in helping to garner support the center and remove obstacles. These projects include ramping up ventilator capacity and fabrication of ventilator parts, the creation of point-of-care ultrasounds and diagnostic testing, evaluating processes of PPE decontamination, and more. Visit the Penn Health-Tech coronavirus website to learn more, get involved with an existing team, or submit a new idea.
Dr. Maltese is rapidly developing a low-cost ventilator that could be deployed in Penn Medicine for the expected surge, and any surge in subsequent waves. This design is currently under consideration by the FDA for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). This example is one of several designs considered by Penn Medicine in dealing with the patient surge.
David F. Meaney, Solomon R. Pollack Professor of Bioengineering and Senior Associate Dean
Led by David Meaney, Kevin Turner, Peter Bruno and Mark Yim, the face shield team at Penn Health-Tech is working on developing thousands of rapidly producible shields to protect and prolong the usage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Learn more about Penn Health-Tech’s initiatives and apply to get involved here.
Update 4/29/20: The Penn Engineering community has sprung into action over the course of the past few weeks in response to COVID-19. Dr. Meaney shared his perspective on those efforts and the ones that will come online as the pandemic continues to unfold. Read the full post on the Penn Engineering blog.
OUTREACH & EDUCATION
Student Community Building
Yale Cohen, Professor of Otorhinolaryngology, Department of Psychology, BE Graduate Group Member, and BE Graduate Chair
Yale Cohen, and Penn Bioengineering’s Graduate Chair, is working with Penn faculty and peer institutions across the country to identify intellectually engaging and/or community-building activities for Bioengineering students. While those ideas are in progress, he has also worked with BE Department Chair Ravi Radhakrishnan and Undergraduate Chair Andrew Tsourkas to set up a dedicated Penn Bioengineering slack channel open to all Penn Bioengineering Undergrads, Master’s and Doctoral Students, and Postdocs as well as faculty and staff. It has already become an enjoyable place for the Penn BE community to connect and share ideas, articles, and funny memes.
Undergraduate Course: Biotechnology, Immunology, Vaccines and COVID-19 (ENGR 35)
Daniel A. Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
This Summer Session II, Professor Dan Hammer and CBE Senior Lecturer Miriam R. Wattenbarger will teach a brand-new course introducing Penn undergraduates to a basic understanding of biological systems, immunology, viruses, and vaccines. This course will start with the fundamentals of biotechnology, and no prior knowledge of biotechnology is necessary. Some chemistry is needed to understand how biological systems work. The course will cover basic concepts in biotechnology, including DNA, RNA, the Central Dogma, proteins, recombinant DNA technology, polymerase chain reaction, DNA sequencing, the functioning of the immune system, acquired vs. innate immunity, viruses (including HIV, influenza, adenovirus, and coronavirus), gene therapy, CRISPR-Cas9 editing, drug discovery, types of pharmaceuticals (including small molecule inhibitors and monoclonal antibodies), vaccines, clinical trials. Some quantitative principles will be used to quantifying the strength of binding, calculate the dynamics of enzymes, writing and solving simple epidemiological models, methods for making and purifying drugs and vaccines. The course will end with specific case study of coronavirus pandemic, types of drugs proposed and their mechanism of action, and vaccine development.
Update 4/29/20: Read the Penn Engineering blog post on this course published April 27, 2020.
Konrad Kording, Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor of Bioengineering, Neuroscience, and Computer and Information Science
Dr. Kording facilitated Neuromatch 2020, a large virtual neurosciences conferences consisting of over 3,000 registrants. All of the conference talk videos are archived on the conference website and Dr. Kording has blogged about what he learned in the course of running a large conference entirely online. Based on the success of Neuromatch 1.0, the team are now working on planning Neuromatch 2.0, which will take place in May 2020. Dr. Kording is also working on facilitating the transition of neuroscience communication into the online space, including a weekly social (#neurodrinking) with both US and EU versions.
Konrad Kording, Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor of Bioengineering, Neuroscience, and Computer and Information Science
Dr. Kording is working to launch the Neuromatch Academy, an open, online, 3-week intensive tutorial-based computational neuroscience training event (July 13-31, 2020). Participants from undergraduate to professors as well as industry are welcome. The Neuromatch Academy will introduce traditional and emerging computational neuroscience tools, their complementarity, and what they can tell us about the brain. A main focus is not just on using the techniques, but on understanding how they relate to biological questions. The school will be Python-based making use of Google Colab. The Academy will also include professional development / meta-science, model interpretation, and networking sessions. The goal is to give participants the computational background needed to do research in neuroscience. Interested participants can learn more and apply here.
Journal of Biomedical Engineering Call for Review Articles
Beth Winkelstein, Vice Provost for Education and Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor of Bioengineering
The American Society of Medical Engineers’ (ASME) Journal of Biomechanical Engineering (JBME), of which Dr. Winkelstein is an Editor, has put out a call for review articles by trainees for a special issue of the journal. The call was made in March 2020 when many labs were ramping down, and trainees began refocusing on review articles and remote work. This call continues the JBME’s long history of supporting junior faculty and trainees and promoting their intellectual contributions during challenging times.
Update 4/29/20: CFP for the special 2021 issue here.
Are you a Penn Bioengineering community member involved in a coronavirus-related project? Let us know! Please reach out to email@example.com.
There are two types of fat in the human body: brown and white. Brown fat, the “good” fat, is rich in mitochondria, which gives it its brown appearance. Whereas white fat stores calories and acts as an insulator, mitochondria-rich brown fat burns energy to produce heat throughout the body and maintains body temperature. White fat, conversely, uses its stored energy to insulate the body and keep its temperature level. While all fat serves a purpose in the body, an excess of white fat cells causes obesity, a condition affecting one in three adults in the U.S. and the root cause of many potential health problems. Finding ways to convert white fat to brown opens a possibility of treating this problem naturally.
A new study in Scientific Reports proposes a clever way to convert fat types. Professor of Biomedical Engineering Samuel Sia, PhD, of the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science, led a team which developed a method of converting white fat into brown using a tissue-grafting technique. After extracting and converting the fat, it can then be transplanted back into the patient. White fat is hard-wired to convert to brown under certain conditions, such as exposure to cold temperatures, so the trick for Dr. Sia’s team was finding a way to make the conversion last for long periods. The studies conducted with mice suggested that using these methods, newly-converted fat stayed brown for a period of two months.
Dr. Sia’s team will proceed to conduct further tests, especially on the subjects’ metabolism and overall weight after undergoing the procedure, and they hope that eventual clinical trials will result in new methods to treat or even prevent obesity in humans.
Cremins Lab Student Appointed Blavatnik Fellow
The Perelman School of Medicine named Linda Zhou, a student in BE’s Cremins Laboratory, a Blavatnik Fellow for the 2018-2019 academic year. The selection process for this award is highly competitive, and Linda’s selection speaks to the excellent quality of her scholarship and academic performance. The fellows will be honored in a special ceremony at the Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Linda received her B.S. in Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale University and is currently pursuing her M.D./Ph.D. in the Genomics and Computational Biology Program at Penn. “I am honored to be named a Blavatnik Fellow and am extremely excited to continue my graduate studies investigating neurological disorders and the 3D genome,” she said. “This support will be integral to achieving my long term goal of driving scientific discovery that will help treat human disease.”
Linda’s research is overseen by Penn Bioengineering Assistant Professor Jennifer Phillips-Cremins, PhD. “Linda is an outstanding graduate student,” said Dr. Cremins. “It is a true delight to work with her. She is hard working, intelligent, kind, and has extraordinary leadership ability. Her unrelenting search for ground-state truth makes her a shining star.”
The Blavatnik Family Fellowship in Biomedical Research is a new award announced by the Perelman School of Medicine in May of this year. This generous gift from the Blavatnik Family Foundation awards $2 million to six recipients in the Biomedical Graduate Studies Program at Penn for each of the next four years.
Growing Lungs in a Lab
As the demand for lung transplants continues to rise, so does the need for safe and effective transplanted lungs. Bioengineered lungs grown or created in labs are one way of meeting this demand. The problem – as is ever the case with transplants – is the high rate of rejection. The results of success are always better when cells from the patient herself (or autologous cells) are used in the transplanted organ.
Recently Joan Nichols, PhD, Professor of Internal Medicine, and Microbiology and Immunology, at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, successfully bioengineered the first human lung. Her latest study published in Science Translational Medicine describes the next milestone for Dr. Nichols’ lab: successfully transplanting a bioengineered lung into a pig.
These advances are possible due to Dr. Nichols’ work with autologous cells, continuing the trend of “on demand” medicine (i.e. medicine tailor for a specific patient) which we track on this blog. Dr. Nichols’ particular method is to build the structure of a lung (using the harvested organs of dead pigs in this case), de-cellularize the tissue, and then repopulate it with autologous cells from the intended recipient. This way, the host body recognizes the cells as friendly and the likelihood of acceptance increases. While further study is needed before clinical trials can begin, Dr. Nichols and her team see the results as extremely promising and believe that we are on the way to bioengineered human lungs.
Nanoparticles Combat Dental Plaque
Combine a diet high in sugar with poor oral hygiene habits and dental cavities likely result. The sugar triggers the formation of an acidic biofilm (plaque) on the teeth, eroding the surface. Early childhood dental cavities affect one in every four children in the United States and hundreds of millions more globally. It’s a particularly severe problem in underprivileged populations.
The flu virus is notoriously contagious, but there may be a way to stop it before it starts. In order for the influenza virus to successfully transport itself into the cells of a human host, it needs a certain protein called hemagglutinin which mediates its entry. By interfering with this vital ingredient, researchers can effectively kill the virus.
A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discusses a method of disrupting the process by which this protein causes the virus to infect its host cells. This discovery could lead to more effective flu vaccines that target the flu virus at its root, rather than current ones which have to keep up with the ongoing changes and mutations of the virus itself. Indeed, the need for different vaccines to address various “strains” of the flu is moot if a vaccine can stop the virus from infecting people in the first place.
This breakthrough results from grants provided by the NSF, the Welch Foundation, and the NIH to Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine. Lead researchers José Onuchic, PhD, Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Chair of Physics and Professor of Chemistry and BioSciences at Rice University; Jianpeng Ma, PhD, Professor of Bioengineering at Rice University and Lodwick T. Bolin Professor of Biochemistry at Baylor College of Medicine; and Qinghua Wang, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at Baylor College of Medicine. Their team will continue to study the important role proteins play in how the flu virus operates.
People and Places
This week, we congratulate a few new leadership appointments in bioengineering. First, the Georgia Institute of Technology appointed Penn BE alumnus Andréas García, PhD, the new Executive Director of the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience. In addition to his new role, Dr. García is also the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering Regents Professor. He conducts research in biomolecular, cellular, and tissue engineering and collaborates with a number of research centers across Georgia Tech. Dr. García graduated with both his M.S.E. and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Bioengineering.
Secondly, the University of Minnesota Institute for Engineering in Medicine (IEM) named the Distinguished McKnight University Professor John Bischof, PhD, their new director. This follows Dr. Bischof’s recent position as interim director for the IEM. Dr. Bischof earned his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, and is currently a faculty member in both the Mechanical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering Departments at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Bischof holds the Carl and Janet Kuhrmeyer Chair in Mechanical Engineering.
At an earlier, but no less impressive, point in his academic career, Tanishq Abraham became the youngest person to graduate with a degree in biomedical engineering. The fifteen year old recently graduated summa cum laude from the University of California, Davis. As part of his graduating research, Abraham – a first-generation Indian-American – designed a device to measure the heart rates of burn victims. Abraham has already been accepted by U.C. Davis for his Ph.D. and plans to continue on to his M.D.
Finally, the work continues to create affordable and well-fitted prosthetics, especially for remote, rural, and underfunded areas both in the U.S. and abroad. Unfortunately, recent studies published by the Centre for Biomedical Engineering at the India Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT) demonstrate the uphill nature of this battle; stating that India alone contains over half a million upper limb amputees. To address this explosive population, researchers and entrepreneurs are using new bioengineering technologies such as digital manufacturing, 3D scanning and printing, and more. The best innovations are those that save time, resources, and money, without sacrificing quality in the prosthetic or patient comfort. Penn Engineering’s Global Biomedical Service (GBS) program similarly responds to this need, as each year students follow an academically rigorous course with a two-week immersive trip to China, where they learn how to create and fit prosthetic limbs for local children in conjunction with Hong Kong Polytechnic University.