Eight researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine have received research grants designed to invest in high-risk, high-reward projects.
Bushra Raj, Assistant Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in the Perelman School of Medicine and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, was one of three Penn winners of the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award for independent projects developed by early-career investigators. More additional Penn scientists who received NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award for a project focusing on cancer research.
Raj’s project focuses on “testing a novel technology that uses CRISPR/Cas gene-editing tools to genomically record inputs from two signaling pathways in the developing zebrafish brain.”
Established in 2009, the Transformative Research Award promotes cross-cutting, interdisciplinary science and is open to individuals and teams of investigators who propose research that could potentially create or challenge existing paradigms.
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.”
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, 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.
Yogesh Goyal, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in Genetics and Bioengineering, has been selected as a 2021 STAT Wunderkind, which honors the “next generation of scientific superstars.” Goyal’s research is centered around developing novel mathematical and experimental frameworks to study how a rare subpopulation of cancer cells are able to survive drug therapy and develop resistance, resulting in relapse in patients. In particular, his work provides a view of different paths that single cancer cells take when becoming resistant, at unprecedented resolution and scale. This research aims to help devise novel therapeutic strategies to combat the challenge of drug resistance in cancer.
Goyal is a Jane Coffin Childs Postdoctoral Fellow in the systems biology lab of Arjun Raj, Professor in Bioengineering and Genetics at Penn. He will begin an appointment as Assistant Professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology (CDB) in the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in spring 2022.
Speaker: Guillermo Ameer, D.Sc.
Daniel Hale Williams Professor of Biomedical Engineering & Surgery
McCormick School of Engineering
Date: Thursday, September 16, 2021
Time: 3:30-4:30 PM EDT
Zoom – check email for link or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Location: Moore Room 216, 200 S. 33rd Street
Abstract: Regenerative engineering is the convergence of advances in materials science, physical sciences, stem cell and developmental biology, and translational medicine to develop tools that enable the regeneration and reconstruction of tissue and organ function. I will describe how materials can be engineered to play a critical role in treating tissue and organ defects and dysfunction by promoting cellular processes that are conducive to regeneration. Applications of these materials to address the complications of diabetes and orthopaedic injuries will be discussed.
Guillermo Ameer Bio: Dr. Ameer is the Daniel Hale Williams professor of Biomedical Engineering and Surgery in the Biomedical Engineering Department at the McCormick School of Engineering and the Department of Surgery at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. He is the founding director of the Center for Advanced Regenerative Engineering (CARE) and the Director of the NIH-funded Regenerative Engineering Training Program (RE-Training). He received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from The University of Texas at Austin and his doctoral degree in chemical and biomedical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research interests include regenerative engineering, biomaterials, additive manufacturing for biomedical devices, controlled drug delivery and bio/nanotechnology for therapeutics and diagnostics.
Dr. Ameer’s laboratory pioneered the development and tissue regeneration applications of citrate-based biomaterials (CBB), the core technology behind the innovative bioresorbable orthopaedic tissue fixation devices CITREFIXTM, CITRESPLINETM, and CITRELOCKTM, which were recently cleared by the F.D.A for clinical use and marketed worldwide. CBBs are the first thermoset synthetic polymers used for implantable biodegradable medical devices. The co-founder of several companies, Dr. Ameer has approximately 300 publications and conference abstracts and over 55 patents issued and pending in 9 countries.
His awards include the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, the American Heart Association’s Established Investigator Award, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Eminent Chemical Engineer Award, the Key to the City of Panama, induction into the Academy of Distinguished Chemical Engineers (U. Texas Mcketta Dept. of Chemical Engineering), and the Society for Biomaterials Clemson Award for Contributions to the Literature. Dr. Ameer is a Fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE), Fellow of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), a Fellow of the AIChE, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Fellow of the Materials Research Society, and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. Dr. Ameer is an Associate Editor for the AAAS journal Science Advances and the Regenerative Engineering and Translational Medicine journal; a member of the board of directors of the Regenerative Engineering Society; past board member of BMES and AIMBE; Chair of the AIMBE Awards Committee; Chair-elect of the College of Fellows of AIMBE; and a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of Acuitive Technologies, Inc.- a company that is bringing his biomaterial technologies to the musculoskeletal surgery market.
“I am so excited for Yogesh beginning his faculty career,” Raj says. “He is a wonderful scientist with a sense of aesthetics. His work is simultaneously significant and elegant, a powerful combination.”
With a unique background in engineering, developmental biology, biophysical modeling, and single-cell biology, Yogesh develops quantitative approaches to problems in developmental biology and cancer drug resistance. As a postdoc, Yogesh developed theoretical and experimental lineage tracing approaches to study how non-genetic fluctuations may arise within genetically identical cancer cells and how these fluctuations affect the outcomes upon exposure to targeted therapy drugs. The Goyal Lab at Northwestern will “combine novel experimental, computational, and theoretical frameworks to monitor, perturb, model, and ultimately control single-cell variabilities and emergent fate choices in development and disease, including cancer and developmental disorders.”
“I am excited to start a new chapter in my academic career at Northwestern University,” Goyal says. “I am grateful for my time at Penn Bioengineering, and I thank my mentor Arjun Raj and the rest of the lab members for making this time intellectually and personally stimulating.”
Congratulations to Dr. Goyal from everyone at Penn Bioengineering!
The National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award is given to early-career researchers in order to kickstart their careers in innovative and pivotal research while giving back to the community in the form of outreach and education. Alex Hughes, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering and in Cell and Developmental Biology, is among the Penn Engineering faculty members who have received the CAREER Award this year.
Hughes plans to use the funds to develop a human kidney model to better understand how the development of cells and tissues influences congenital diseases of the kidney and urinary tract.
The model, known as an “organoid,” is a lab-grown piece of human kidney tissue on the scale of millimeters to centimeters, grown from cultured human cells.
“We want to create a human organoid structure that has nephrons, the filters of the kidney, that are properly ‘plumbed’ or connected to the ureteric epithelium, the tubules that direct urine towards the bladder,” says Hughes. “To achieve that, we have to first understand how to guide the formation of the ureteric tubule networks, and then stimulate early nephrons to fuse with those networks. In the end, the structures will look like ‘kidney subunits’ that could potentially be injected and fused to existing kidneys.”
The field of bioengineering has touched on questions similar to those posed by Hughes, focusing on drug testing and disease treatment. Some of these questions can be answered with the “organ-on-a-chip” approach, while others need an even more realistic model of the organ. The fundamentals of kidney development and questions such as “how does the development of nephrons affect congenital kidney and urinary tract anomalies?” require an organoid in an environment as similar to the human body as possible.
“We decided to start with the kidney for a few reasons,” says Hughes. “First, because its development is a beautiful process; the tubule growth is similar to that of a tree, splitting into branches. It’s a complex yet understudied organ that hosts incredibly common developmental defects.
“Second,” he says, “the question of how things form and develop in the kidney has major medical implications, and we cannot answer that with the ‘organ-on-a-chip’ approach. We need to create a model that mimics the chemical and mechanical properties of the kidney to watch these tissues develop.”
The fundamental development of the kidney can also answer other questions related to efficiency and the evolution of this biological filtration system.
“We have the tendency to believe that systems in the human body are the most evolved and thus the most efficient, but that is not necessarily true,” says Hughes. “If we can better understand the development of a system, such as the kidney, then we may be able to make the system better.”
Hughes’ kidney research will lay the foundation for broader goals within regenerative medicine and organ transplantation.
We hope you will join us for the 2021 Grace Hopper Distinguished Lecture by Dr. Jennifer Lewis, presented by the Department of Bioengineering. For event links, email email@example.com.
Date: Thursday, March 25, 2021
Time: 3:00-4:00 PM EDT
Speaker: Jennifer A. Lewis, Sc.D.
Wyss Professor for Biologically Inspired Engineering
The Wyss Institue
Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Title: “Biomanufacturing Vascularized Organoids and Functional Human Tissue”
Following the lecture, join us for a panel discussion “Horizon 2030: Engineering Life & Life in (Bio)Engineering” featuring Dr. Lewis and Penn faculty and moderated by Bioengineering students. Further details here.
Recent protocols in developmental biology are unlocking the potential for stem cells to undergo differentiation and self-assembly to form “mini-organs”, known as organoids. To bridge the gap from organoid building blocks (OBBs) to therapeutic functional tissues, integrative approaches that combine bottom-up organoid assembly with top-down bioprinting are needed. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how either organoids or bioprinting alone would fully replicate the complex multiscale features required for organ-specific function – their combination may provide an enabling foundation for de novo tissue manufacturing. My talk will begin by describing our recent efforts to generate organoids in vitro with perfusable microvascular networks that support their viability and maturation. Next, I will describe the generation of 3D vascularized organ-specific tissues by assembling OBBs into a living matrix that supports the embedded printing of macro-vessels by a process known as sacrificial writing in functional tissue (SWIFT). Though broadly applicable, I will highlight our recent work on kidney, cerebral, and cardiac tissue engineering.
Dr. Lewis Bio:
Jennifer A. Lewis is the Jianming Yu Professor of Arts and Sciences, the Wyss Professor for Biologically Inspired Engineering in the Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a core faculty member of the Wyss Institute at Harvard University. Her research focuses on 3D printing of functional, structural, and biological materials that emulate natural systems. Prior to joining Harvard, Lewis was a faculty member in the Materials Science and Engineering Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she served as the Director of the Materials Research Laboratory. Currently, she directs the Harvard Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) and serves the NSF Mathematical and Physical Sciences Advisory Committee.
Lewis has received numerous awards, including the Presidential Faculty Fellow Award, the American Chemical Society Langmuir Lecture Award, the Materials Research Society Medal Award, the American Ceramic Society Sosman and Roy Lecture Awards, and the Lush Science Prize. She is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Inventors, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her research has enjoyed broad coverage in the popular media. To date, she has co-founded two companies, Voxel8 Inc. and Electroninks, that are commercializing technology from her lab.
Information on the GraceHopper Lecture: In support of its educational mission of promoting the role of all engineers in society, the School of Engineering and Applied Science presents the GraceHopper Lecture Series. This series is intended to serve the dual purpose of recognizing successful women in engineering and of inspiring students to achieve at the highest level.
Rear Admiral GraceHopper was a mathematician, computer scientist, systems designer and the inventor of the compiler. Her outstanding contributions to computer science benefited academia, industry and the military. In 1928 she graduated from Vassar College with a B.A. in mathematics and physics and joined the Vassar faculty. While an instructor, she continued her studies in mathematics at Yale University where she earned an M.A. in 1930 and a Ph.D. in 1934. GraceHopper is known worldwide for her work with the first large-scale digital computer, the Navy’s Mark I. In 1949 she joined Philadelphia’s Eckert-Mauchly, founded by the builders of ENIAC, which was building UNIVAC I. Her work on compilers and on making machines understand ordinary language instructions lead ultimately to the development of the business language, COBOL. GraceHopper served on the faculty of the Moore School for 15 years, and in 1974 received an honorary degree from the University. In support of the accomplishments of women in engineering, each department within the School invites a prominent speaker for a one or two-day visit that incorporates a public lecture, various mini-talks and opportunities to interact with undergraduate and graduate students and faculty.
While genetics and biochemistry research has dominated the conversation about how human bodies are formed, new research — with an old twist — is proposing that there is another star in the show of human development: mechanical forces.
At the turn of the twentieth century, medical research relied on simple mechanics to explain scientific phenomena, including how human cells morph into shape from embryo to newborn and beyond. As better chemistry techniques and DNA research burst onto the scene, however, the idea that cells could be affected by physical forces took a back seat. Now researchers are referring back to this vintage idea and bringing it into the 21st century.
Dennis Discher, Robert D. Bent Professor in the Departments of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Bioengineering and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, was featured in a recent article in Knowable Magazine for his research on the human heart and how mechanical forces exerted on heart cells give the vital organ its necessary stiffness during development.