Following the global COVID-19 pandemic, the development and rapid deployment of mRNA vaccines highlighted the critical role of lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) in the context of pharmaceuticals. Used as the essential delivery vehicles for fragile RNA-based therapies and vaccines, LNPs protect the RNA from degradation and ensure effective delivery within the body.
Despite their critical importance, the large-scale manufacturing of these LNPs saw numerous bottlenecks during the pandemic, underscoring the need for scalable production techniques that could keep pace with global demand.
Now, in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania describe how the Silicon Scalable Lipid Nanoparticle Generation platform (SCALAR), a reusable silicon- and glass-based platform designed to transform the production landscape of LNPs for RNA therapeutics and vaccines, offers a scalable and efficient solution to the challenges exposed during the COVID-19 crisis.
“We’re excited to create a piece of technology platform that bridges the gap between small-scale discovery and large-scale manufacturing in the realm of RNA lipid nanoparticle vaccines and therapeutics,” says co-author Michael Mitchell, associate professor of bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Penn. “By doing so, we’ve effectively leapfrogged the clunky, time-consuming, and costly barriers that slow down the production ramp-up of promising new RNA medicines and vaccines.”
The intricacies of RNA-based therapies require the RNA to be encased in a delivery system capable of navigating the body’s biological obstacles. LNPs fulfill this role, allowing the RNA to reach the intended cells for maximum therapeutic impact. SCALAR aims to take this a step further, allowing for an unprecedented three orders of magnitude scalability in LNP production rates, addressing the speed and consistency bottlenecks that hinder existing methods.
Sarah Shepherd, the first author of the paper and a recent Ph.D. graduate who worked in the Mitchell Lab, says, “With SCALAR, we’re not just reacting to today’s challenges but proactively preparing for tomorrow’s opportunities and crises. This technology is flexible, uses mixing architectures well-documented in microfluidics, and is scalable enough to meet future demands in real time. That’s an enormous leap forward for the field.”
Shepherd says that SCALAR builds on prior work from the Mitchell lab and is based on a microfluidic chip platform. Akin to a computer chip, wherein a computer’s electrically integrated circuit has numerous little transistors transporting signals as ones or zeroes to produce an output, the SCALAR microchip precisely controls their two key reagents, lipids and RNA, to generate LNPs.
“’The students all come here and they hang out and they build stuff,’ said David Issadore, associate professor of bioengineering and electrical and systems engineering. ‘This junior-level course is kind of an entry point for their senior design. So next year, all these students are going to take on new projects, and then they all kind of hang around here and they build incredible stuff.’”
The profile of the BE Labs is part of Technical.ly’s 2023 Universities Month, a series focusing on the latest trends and tech in higher education.
A shapeshifting robotic microswarm may one day act as a toothbrush, rinse, and dental floss in one.
The technology, developed by a multidisciplinary team at the University of Pennsylvania, is poised to offer a new and automated way to perform the mundane but critical daily tasks of brushing and flossing. It’s a system that could be particularly valuable for those who lack the manual dexterity to clean their teeth effectively themselves.
The building blocks of these microrobots are iron oxide nanoparticles that have both catalytic and magnetic activity. Using a magnetic field, researchers could direct their motion and configuration to form either bristlelike structures that sweep away dental plaque from the broad surfaces of teeth, or elongated strings that can slip between teeth like a length of floss. In both instances, a catalytic reaction drives the nanoparticles to produce antimicrobials that kill harmful oral bacteria on site.
Experiments using this system on mock and real human teeth showed that the robotic assemblies can conform to a variety of shapes to nearly eliminate the sticky biofilms that lead to cavities and gum disease. The Penn team shared their findings establishing a proof-of-concept for the robotic system in the journal ACS Nano.
“Routine oral care is cumbersome and can pose challenges for many people, especially those who have hard time cleaning their teeth” says Hyun (Michel) Koo, a professor in the Department of Orthodontics and divisions of Community Oral Health and Pediatric Dentistry in Penn’s School of Dental Medicine and co-corresponding author on the study. “You have to brush your teeth, then floss your teeth, then rinse your mouth; it’s a manual, multistep process. The big innovation here is that the robotics system can do all three in a single, hands-free, automated way.”
Hyun (Michel) Koo is a professor in the Department of Orthodontics and divisions of Community Oral Health and Pediatric Dentistry in the School of Dental Medicine, co-director of the Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry, and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group at the University of Pennsylvania.
Edward Steager is a senior research investigator in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Koo and Steager’s coauthors on the paper are Penn Dental Medicine’s Min Jun Oh, Alaa Babeer, Yuan Liu, and Zhi Ren and Penn Engineering’s Jingyu Wu, David A. Issadore, Kathleen J. Stebe, and Daeyeon Lee.
This work was supported in part by the National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research (grants DE025848 and DE029985), Procter & Gamble, and the Postdoctoral Research Program of Sungkyunkwan University.
Qazi obtained his Ph.D. at the Technical University of Berlin and the Charité Hospital in Berlin, Germany working on translational approaches for musculoskeletal tissue repair using biomaterials and stem cells under the co-advisement of Georg Duda, Director of the Berlin Institute of Health and David Mooney, Mercator Fellow at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. After arriving at Penn in 2019, Qazi performed research on microscale granular hydrogels in the Polymeric Biomaterials Laboratory of Jason Burdick, Adjunct Professor in Bioengineering at Penn and Bowman Endowed Professor in Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder. While conducting postdoctoral research, Qazi also collaborated with the groups of David Issadore, Associate Professor in Bioengineering and in Electrical and Systems Engineering, and Daeyeon Lee, Professor and Evan C. Thompson Term Chair for Excellence in Teaching in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. Qazi’s postdoctoral research was supported through a fellowship from the German Research Foundation, and resulted in several publications in high-profile journals, including Advanced Materials, Cell Stem Cell, Small, and ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering.
“Taimoor has done really fantastic research as a postdoctoral fellow in the group,” says Burdick. “Purdue has a long history of excellence in biomaterials research and will be a great place for him to build a strong research program.”
Qazi’s future research program will engineer biomaterials to make fundamental and translational advances in musculoskeletal tissue engineering, including the study of how rare tissue-resident cells respond to spatiotemporal signals and participate in tissue repair, and developing modular hydrogels that permit minimally invasive delivery for tissue regeneration. The ultimate goal is to create scalable, translational, and biologically inspired healthcare solutions that benefit a patient population that is expected to grow manifold in the coming years.
Qazi is looking to build a strong and inclusive team of scientists and engineers with diverse backgrounds interested in tackling problems at the interface of translational medicine, materials science, bioengineering, and cell biology, and will be recruiting graduate students immediately. Interested students can contact him directly at email@example.com.
“I am excited to launch my independent research career at a prestigious institution like Purdue,” says Qazi. “Being at Penn and particularly in the Department of Bioengineering greatly helped me prepare for the journey ahead. I am grateful for Jason’s mentorship over the years and the access to resources provided by Jason, Dave Issadore, Ravi, Dave Meany and other faculty which support the training and professional development of postdoctoral fellows in Penn Bioengineering.”
Congratulations to Dr. Qazi from everyone at Penn Bioengineering!
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.
The COVID vaccines currently being deployed were developed with unprecedented speed, but the mRNA technology at work in some of them is an equally impressive success story. Because any desired mRNA sequence can be synthesized in massive quantities, one of the biggest hurdles in a variety of mRNA therapies is the ability to package those sequences into the lipid nanoparticles that deliver them into cells.
Now, thanks to manufacturing technology developed by bioengineers and medical researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, a hundred-fold increase in current microfluidic production rates may soon be possible.
The researchers’ advance stems from their design of a proof-of-concept microfluidic device containing 128 mixing channels working in parallel. The channels mix a precise amount of lipid and mRNA, essentially crafting individual lipid nanoparticles on a miniaturized assembly line.
This increased speed may not be the only benefit; more precisely controlling the nanoparticles’ size could make treatments more effective. The researchers tested the lipid nanoparticles produced by their device in a mouse study, showing they could deliver therapeutic RNA sequences with four-to-five times greater activity than those made by conventional methods.
The study was led by Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, and David Issadore, Associate Professor in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, along with Sarah Shepherd, a doctoral student in both of their labs. Rakan El-Mayta, a research engineer in Mitchell’s lab, and Sagar Yadavali, a postdoctoral researcher in Issadore’s lab, also contributed to the study.
They collaborated with several researchers at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine: postdoctoral researcher Mohamad-Gabriel Alameh, Lili Wang, Research Associate Professor of Medicine, James M. Wilson, Rose H. Weiss Orphan Disease Center Director’s Professor in the Department of Medicine, Claude Warzecha, a senior research investigator in Wilson’s lab, and Drew Weissman, Professor of Medicine and one of the original developers of the technology behind mRNA vaccines.
“We believe that this microfluidic technology has the potential to not only play a key role in the formulation of current COVID vaccines,” says Mitchell, “but also to potentially address the immense need ahead of us as mRNA technology expands into additional classes of therapeutics.”
A blood test may be able to detect the most common form of pancreatic cancer while it is still in its early stages while also helping doctors accurately stage a patient’s disease and guide them to the appropriate treatment. A multidisciplinary study found the test—known as a liquid biopsy—was more accurate at detecting disease in a blinded study than any other known biomarker alone, and was also more accurate at staging disease than imaging is capable of alone. The team, which includes researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine, the Abramson Cancer Center, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, published their findings in Clinical Cancer Research, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.
Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), the most common form of pancreatic cancer, is the third leading cause of cancer deaths. The overall five-year survival rate is just 9%, and most patients live less than one year following their diagnosis. One of the biggest challenges is catching the disease before it has progressed or spread. If the disease is caught early, patients may be candidates for surgery to remove the cancer, which can be curative. For locally advanced patients—meaning patients whose cancer has not spread beyond the pancreas but who are not candidates for surgery based on the size or location of the tumor—treatment involves three months of systemic therapy like chemo or radiation, then reassessing to see if surgery is an option. For patients whose disease has spread, there are currently no curative treatment options.
“Right now, the majority of patients who are diagnosed already have metastatic disease, so there is a critical need for a test that can not only detect the disease earlier but also accurately tell us who might be at a point where we can direct them to a potentially curative treatment,” says the study’s co-senior author Erica L. Carpenter,director of the Liquid Biopsy Laboratory and a research assistant professor of medicine. The study’s other co-senior author is David Issadore, an associate professor of bioengineering and electrical and systems engineering.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Swept up in a pancreatic cancer diagnosis is inevitably a sense of fear and sadness.
But at Penn, researchers are bringing new hope to this disease. And with patients like Nick Pifani, it’s clear that they’re moving in the right direction.
Pifani, from Delran, New Jersey, first noticed some lingering stomach upset in February 2017. He called his family doctor, concerned—especially given that he was an otherwise healthy marathon runner who was only 42. He was sent to a gastrointestinal specialist. A few weeks later, some crippling stomach pain sent him back to the emergency room and he received an MRI that showed a mass on his pancreas—Stage Three, inoperable, he was told.
He was treated with chemotherapy, along with radiation and, eventually, and after receiving advice from doctors at Penn, his tumor was removed. Thereafter, he realized he had a PALB2 mutation—a cousin of the BRCA gene mutation. At that moment, his long-term needs changed and he found himself seeking specialized care at Penn, where he met Kim Reiss Binder, assistant professor of medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP).
“I’m a planner; I want to understand what [my] potential options are,” Pifani says. “[Reiss Binder] asked why I was there to see her and I explained and quickly I could tell she was—outside of her being remarkably intelligent—a great listener and a compassionate doctor.”
“I have a feeling she worries about me more than I do,” he laughs.
Pifani has now been in remission for two years and four months; he sees Reiss-Binder every three months for checkups. His survival story is inspiring and a sign of momentum, even if a world without pancreatic cancer is still frustratingly out of reach.
Pancreatic cancer at Penn
Pancreatic cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States, outmatched only by lung cancer (No. 1) and colorectal cancer (No. 2). A person diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is still unlikely to survive past five years—only 9% of survivors do, giving it the highest mortality rate among every major cancer.
In short, pancreatic cancer seldom paves the way for optimistic narratives. Some of the hope that has surfaced, though, is thanks to some talent, dedication to the cause, and hard work at Penn.
A key point of progress in the battle against the disease was made in 2002, when former Assistant Professor of Medicine David Tuveson established a standard model for examining human development of this disease in mice. This model has allowed for a reliable way to study the disease and has influenced progress made here at Penn and elsewhere since.
“There’s been a burst of activity in translational research, from bench to bedside,” explains Ben Stanger, the Hanna Wise Professor in cancer research and director of the Penn Pancreatic Cancer Research Center (PCRC) at the Abramson Cancer Center.
“And there’s a lot of momentum with community building, a dramatic increase in patient volumes, and a dramatic increase in what we know about the cancer,” he says of the status of pancreatic cancer today.
Reiss Binder, meanwhile, explains that one mark of progress at Penn and beyond has been learning about people like Pifani, who have the PALB2 gene, and why they respond differently to treatments than those without it. Platinum-based chemotherapies, for example, are especially effective for people with the PALB2 gene who are battling pancreatic cancer. An ongoing trial at Penn has tested and found some success with using PARP inhibitors—taken orally as an enzyme that fixes single-stranded breaks of DNA—as a maintenance therapy in that same PALB2 demographic after they’ve had chemotherapy. These are less toxic than chemotherapy for patients with the same mutations.
It’s all been slow progress toward better treatments, but there has been progress.
“This is the tip of the iceberg for a disease that we historically have treated with perpetual chemotherapy,” Reiss Binder says. “We owe it to patients to find better options to suppress the cancer but not ruin their quality of life.”
Catching cancer earlier
The consensus on why pancreatic cancer is so deadly? It just can’t be spotted fast enough.
Pancreatic cancer often presents well after it has developed and metastasized, and does so in a way that is not easy to recognize as cancer. Common symptoms include, for example, stomach upset and back pain. And by the time a harder-to-ignore symptom of the cancer surfaces, a sort of yellowing of the skin (a result of a bile duct blockage), it’s likely too late to stop the cancer in its tracks.
One approach to improved detection being tested at Penn, by Research Assistant Professor of Medicine Erica Carpenter, is a liquid biopsy—drawn from a standard blood test. Current means to test for pancreatic cancer—imaging through an endoscopic tube—are invasive and expensive, meaning a common liquid test could transform how many cases are detected early.
Carpenter explains that circulating tumor cells (CTCs) can shed from a tumor that’s adjacent to the wall of a blood vessel; what’s shed then shows up in a blood test. The cells, if detected, can explain more about the nature of the tumor, giving doctors an opportunity to examine characteristics of cancerous cells and decide how to effectively treat a tumor if it can’t be surgically removed. It also allows interpretations of disease burden and the effectiveness of medications—through genome sequencing—that imaging does not.
Ultimately, this gives doctors the potential to track the growth of a tumor before it’s fully developed, all through one tube of blood—detected through an innovative use of technology.
David Issadore, associate professor of bioengineering and electrical and systems engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, has worked since 2017 to develop a chip that detects cancer in the blood, using machine learning to sort through literally hundreds of billions of vesicles and cells, looking for these CTCs. The chip retrieves data and the machine learning developed interprets that data, attempting to make a diagnosis that not only finds pancreatic cancer but also provides information about its progression—and, importantly, whether a patient might benefit from surgery.
Tenured faculty at Penn Engineering demonstrate teaching excellence and international leadership in their fields of study and research collaborations.
Associate Professor in Bioengineering Chow’s research focuses on the discovery and engineering of photoreceptors and sensory proteins for manipulating and monitoring the physiology of genetically targeted cells, and the application of these tools to reveal principles of cellular dynamics. His work has advanced the rational design of light activated proteins and the use of optogenetic reagents to study cell signaling.
Associate Professor in Bioengineering Issadore’s research combines microelectronics, microfluidics, and nanomaterials to create miniaturized platforms for the diagnosis of disease. His work has the potential to radically change the way we diagnose and treat diseases by bringing the technologies out of the lab and directly to the point of care.
Dongeun (Dan) Huh
Associate Professor in Bioengineering Huh’s research aims to develop innovative bioengineering tools and technologies using biologically inspired design principles and micro- and nano-scale engineering techniques to create systems that mimic the structure and function of human physiological systems.
Linh Thi Xuan Phan
Associate Professor in Computer and Information Science Phan’s work focuses on making cyber-physical systems (CPS) safer, faster, and more secure, both by strengthening the theoretical foundations and by developing practical solutions. Her recent projects include a cloud platform with real-time capabilities, a new diagnosis technique for timing-related faults, and new ways to defend CPS against attacks from insiders and/or external attackers.
Associate Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Patel’s research strives to achieve a molecular-level understanding of solvation and transport in aqueous and polymeric systems, with applications ranging from the prediction of protein interactions to the design of advanced materials for water purification and energy storage. His group combines principles of statistical mechanics and liquid state theory with state-of-the-art molecular modeling and atomistic simulation techniques to study these biological, nanoscopic and polymeric systems.
Associate Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Vojvodic’s research focuses on theory and computation-driven materials design. Her lab uses computational frameworks to obtain fundamental understanding of surface and interface properties of complex materials that can be used to develop theoretical models for chemical transformations and energy conversion. These models have been used to predict new catalyst materials for several chemical reactions which have been experimentally synthesized and tested, validating the desired properties of the computationally predicted catalyst material.