In the most recent episode of the Penn Engineering podcast Innovation & Impact, titled “RNA: Past, Present and Future,” David F. Meaney, Senior Associate Dean of Penn Engineering and Solomon R. Pollack Professor in Bioengineering, is joined by Mike Mitchell, Associate Professor in Bioengineering, and Noor Momin, who will be joining Penn Engineering as an Assistant Professor in Bioengineering early next year, to discuss the impact that RNA has had on health care and biomedical engineering technologies.
Mitchell outlines his lab’s research that spans drug delivery, new technology in protecting RNA and its applications in treating cancer. Momin details her research, which is focused on optimizing the immune system to protect against illnesses such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer. With Meaney driving the discussion around larger questions, including the possibility of a cancer vaccine, the three discuss what they are excited about now and where the field is going in the future with these emerging, targeted treatments.
On September 14, Wexford Science & Technology, LLC and the University of Pennsylvania announced that the University has signed a lease for new laboratory space that will usher in a wave of novel vaccine, therapeutics, and engineered diagnostics research to West Philadelphia. Research teams from Penn are poised to move into 115,000 square feet of space at One uCity Square, the 13-story, 400,000 square foot purpose-built lab and office building within the vibrant uCity Square Knowledge Community being developed by Wexford. This is the largest lease in the building, encompassing four floors, and bringing the building to over 90% leased. The building currently includes industry tenants Century Therapeutics (NASDAQ: IPSC), Integral Molecular, Exponent (NASDAQ: EXPO), and Charles River Laboratories (NYSE: CRL).
The new University space will house Penn Medicine’s Institute for RNA Innovation and Penn Engineering’s Center for Precision Engineering for Health, underscoring the University’s commitment to a multi-disciplinary and collaborative approach to research that will attract and retain the best talent and engage partners from across the region. Penn’s decision to locate at One uCity Square reinforces uCity Square’s evolution as a central cluster of academic, clinical, commercial, entrepreneurial, and amenity spaces for the area’s innovation ecosystem, and further cements Philadelphia’s position as a top life sciences market.
Jonathan Epstein, MD, Executive Vice Dean and Chief Scientific Officer of Penn Medicine, shared his anticipation for the opportunities that lie ahead: “Penn Medicine is proud to build on its existing clinical presence in uCity Square and establish an innovative and collaborative research presence at the heart of uCity Square’s multidisciplinary innovation ecosystem. This strategic move underscores our commitment to accelerating advancements in biomedical research, industry collaboration, and equipping our talented teams with the resources they need to shape the future of healthcare.”
Locating the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation in the heart of the uCity Square community brings together researchers across disciplines who are already pursuing new vaccines and treatments, and better ways to deliver them. Their shared work will help to power the next phase of vaccine discovery and development.
Likewise, anchoring the work of Penn Engineering’s Center in the One uCity Square space will allow the School’s multi-disciplinary researchers and their collaborators to advance new clinical and diagnostic methods that will focus on intelligent therapeutics, genome design, diagnostics for discovery of human biology, and engineering the human immune shield.
“Penn Engineering has made a substantial commitment to precision engineering for health, an area that is not only important and relevant to engineering, but also critical to the future of humanity,” said Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering. “The space in One uCity Square will add another 30,000 square feet of space for our engineers to develop technologies that will fight future pandemics, cure incurable diseases, and extend healthy life spans around the world.”
Spearheading the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation will be Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, the Roberts Family Professor for Vaccine Research, who along with Katalin Karikó, PhD, adjunct professor of Neurosurgery, discovered foundational mRNA technology that enabled the creation of vital vaccine technology, including the FDA-approved mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
In this new space at One uCity Square, Weissman and his research team and collaborators will further pursue their groundbreaking research efforts with a goal to develop new therapeutics and vaccines and initiate clinical trials for other devastating diseases.
In addition, two established researchers will join the Institute at One uCity Square: Harvey Friedman, MD, a professor of Infectious Diseases, who leads a team researching various vaccines. He will be joined by Vladimir Muzykantov, MD, PhD, Founders Professor in Nanoparticle Research, who focuses on several projects related to targeting the delivery of drugs, including mRNA, to create more effective, targeted pathways to deliver drugs to the vascular system, treating a wide range of diseases that impact the brain, lung, heart, and blood.
Dan Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in the Departments of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Penn Engineering and Director of the Center for Precision Engineering for Health, will oversee the Center’s innovations in diagnostics and delivery, cellular and tissue engineering, and the development of new devices that integrate novel materials with human tissues. The Center will bring together scholars from all departments within Penn Engineering and will help to foster increased collaboration with campus colleagues at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and with industry partners.
Joining the Center researchers in One uCity Square are Noor Momin, Sherry Gao, and Michael Mitchell. Noor Momin, who will join Penn Engineering in early 2024 as an assistant professor in Bioengineering, will leverage her lab’s expertise in cardiovascular immunology, protein engineering and pharmacokinetic modeling to develop next-generation treatments and diagnostics for cardiovascular diseases.
Joshua C. Doloff, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Materials Science & Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, featured in The Jewish News Syndicate for his work on “Hope,” a new technology which offers pain- and injection-free treatment to people with Type 1 or “juvenile” diabetes. Doloff is an alumnus of Penn Bioengineering, Class of 2004:
“Doloff received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and his graduate degrees from Boston University. In addition to his post in Johns Hopkins’ Department of Biomedical Engineering, he is a member of the Translational Tissue Engineering Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. His lab is interested in systems biology with an emphasis on engineering improved therapies in the fields of cancer, autoimmunity, transplantation medicine, including Type 1 diabetes and ophthalmology.”
New research on reproductive health demonstrates the first successful delivery of mRNA to placental cells to treat pre-eclampsia at its root.
Pre-eclampsia is a leading cause of stillbirths and prematurity worldwide, occurring in 3 – 8 % of pregnancies. A disorder characterized by high maternal blood pressure, it results from insufficient vasodilation in the placenta, restricting blood flow from the mother to the fetus.
Currently, a health-care plan for someone with pre-eclampsia involves diet and movement changes, frequent monitoring, blood pressure management, and sometimes early delivery of the baby. These standards of care address symptoms of the condition, not the root cause, and further perpetuate health inequity.
Now, Penn engineers are addressing this longstanding gap in reproductive health care with targeted RNA therapy.
The COVID vaccines demonstrated how lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) efficiently deliver mRNA to target cells. The success of LNPs is opening doors for a variety of RNA therapies aiming to treat the root causes of illness and disease. However, drug development and health care have consistently neglected a portion of the population in need of targeted care the most – pregnant people and their babies.
In one of the first studies of its kind, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society,Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, and Kelsey Swingle, Ph.D. student in the Mitchell Lab and lead author, describe their development of an LNP with the ability to target and deliver mRNA to trophoblasts, endothelial cells, and immune cells in the placenta.
Once these cells receive the mRNA, they create vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), a protein that helps expand the blood vessels in the placenta to reduce the mother’s blood pressure and restore adequate circulation to the fetus. The researchers’ successful trials in mice may lead to promising treatments for pre-eclampsia in humans.
Savan Patel, a fourth year Penn Bioengineering student, is one of 42 finalists competing for a 2023 Hertz Fellowship in applied science, mathematics, and engineering, one of the most prestigious Ph.D. fellowships in the United States. Chosen annually, the Hertz Fellowship is awarded to the nation’s most promising graduate students in science and technology.
“Since 1963, the Hertz Foundation has granted fellowships empowering the nation’s most promising young minds in science and technology. Hertz Fellows receive five years of funding valued at up to $250,000, which offers flexibility from the traditional constraints of graduate training and the independence needed to pursue research that best advances our security and economic vitality […]
Over the foundation’s 60-year history of awarding fellowships, more than 1200 Hertz Fellows have established a remarkable track record of accomplishments. Their ranks include two Nobel laureates; recipients of 10 Breakthrough Prizes and three MacArthur Foundation “genius awards”; and winners of the Turing Award, the Fields Medal, the National Medal of Technology, and the National Medal of Science. In addition, 50 are members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, and 34 are fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Hertz Fellows hold over 3,000 patents, have founded more than 375 companies and have created hundreds of thousands of science and technology jobs.”
Patel is studying Bioengineering and Finance in the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology (M&T), an interdisciplinary dual degree program coordinated by Penn Engineering and the Wharton School of Business. He is currently a member of the lab of Michael J. Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering. Patel’s research interests lie at the interface of drug delivery and immunoengineering. His current project involves the use of modified cholesterol molecules to induce shifts in the biodistribution of ionizable lipid nanoparticles (LNPs). Following graduation, he intends to pursue a Ph.D. in bioengineering in which hopes to develop translatable immunotherapies and drug delivery platforms.
If chosen, the Hertz Fellowship will fund Patel’s graduate studies. Selected from over 750 applicants, Patel is one of fifteen undergraduates and one of two bioengineering students to make the final round of interviews. After a culminating round of interviews, the 2023 Class of Hertz Fellows will be announced in May.
Learn more about the Hertz Fellowship and read the full list of finalists here.
Engineers in the Center for Precision Engineering for Health (CPE4H) are focusing on innovations in diagnostics and delivery, cellular and tissue engineering, and the development of new devices that integrate novel materials with human tissues. Below is an excerpt from “Going Small to Win Big: Engineering Personalized Medicine,” featuring the research from the laboratory of Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering.
Solid tumors evade the immune system’s ability to attack them in part due to the tumors’ tough, fibrous biological barriers that circulating immune cells can’t cross. Researchers need to identify ways to deliver individualized treatments that can better target these tumors without causing damage to healthy tissues or affecting overall quality of life.
The Status Quo
Current cancer treatments typically involve surgery, radiation or chemo- therapy to eliminate solid tumors. These treatments are invasive and can cause numerous negative downstream effects. Newer treatments involve engineering a patient’s immune system to recognize and fight cancerous cells, but are so far only effective against certain “liquid” cancers, where the mutated cells circulate freely in the blood and bone marrow and are small enough to be picked off by the patient’s upgraded T cells. Additionally, existing methods can also require that the cell engineering take place in a lab rather than directly inside the body.
The Mitchell Lab’s Fix
Members of the lab of Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, are looking to utilize nanoparticle delivery technology developed by their lab to engineer a different type of immune cell, the macrophage, in order to fight solid- tumor cancers from the inside.
The Mitchell lab is using lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) to carry mRNA and DNA sequences inside of macrophages, a type of immune cell that can consume tumor cells if engineered correctly. In theory, a patient would receive an injection carrying the LNP payload, and the macrophages, whose name literally means “big eaters,” would take up the genetic sequence, alter their function and be able to recognize a patient’s own unique tumor cells in the body.
Because of the way macrophages operate, they could cross the tumor’s biological barrier and attack the cells, destroying the tumor from the inside. An added benefit of the Mitchell Lab’s technology is that the destroyed tumor cells would then also allow other immune cells to present their antigens to circulating T cells, which could then learn to fight those same cancer cells in the future.
“One of the longstanding challenges that we face in the context of cancer and immunotherapies is that every tumor has unique antigens that are specific to patients,” says Mitchell. “This is why we’ve had a lot of trouble developing targeted therapies. Personalizing an approach by harnessing an individual’s immune system gives each patient a greater chance of a positive outcome.”
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.
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.”
She joins 28 early-career scientists from around the world in this year’s cohort, with each receiving support for one to two years, $100,000 in salary support per year, individualized mentoring, and a series of professional development sessions as they pivot to the next stages of their research agendas.
The fellowship is a program of Schmidt Futures, the philanthropic initiative of Eric and Wendy Schmidt that aims to tackle society’s toughest challenges by supporting interdisciplinary researchers at the start of their careers.
“Our latest group of Schmidt Science Fellows embodies our vision for this Program at its inception five years ago,” says Eric Schmidt, co-founder of Schmidt Futures and former CEO and Chairman of Google. “We find the most talented next-generation leaders from around the world and back these impressive young adults with the resources and networks they need to realize their full potential while addressing some of the big scientific questions facing the world. Congratulations to the 2022 Schmidt Science Fellows, I am excited to see where your science takes you and what you will achieve.”
Working at the intersection of materials science, biology, and applied clinical research, Zlotnick’s postdoctoral work will involve developing advanced bioprinting techniques for regenerative medicine. Such advances are necessary to recreate the multi-cellular composition of orthopedic tissues, such as those found in the knee joint. Lab-grown tissue models can then be used to broaden our understanding of how degenerative diseases progress after injury, limit the need for animal models, and serve as a platform for therapeutic discovery.
Savan Patel, a junior studying Bioengineering and Finance in the Jerome Fisher Management and Technology dual degree program, was selected as the recipient of the 2022 C. William Hall Scholarship from the Society for Biomaterials. The C. William Hall Scholarship is named in honor of the Society for Biomaterials’ first president and is awarded annually “to a junior or senior undergraduate pursuing a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering or a related discipline focusing on biomaterials.” As this year’s recipient, Savan will receive complimentary membership to the Society and will have expenses paid to the Society’s annual meeting being held April 27-30, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland.
Savan is currently a member of the lab of Michael J. Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering. Savan’s research interests lie in the interface of drug delivery and immunoengineering with a particular focus on T cell delivery. His current project involves the use of modified cholesterol molecules to improve the delivery of nucleic acids (i.e., mRNA) to cell populations using lipid nanoparticles.
Lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) are a clinically proven delivery platform for nucleic acid therapeutics. One drawback of these particles is their high cellular recycling rate. Savan and the members of the Mitchell lab are working to reduce this recycling by leveraging cellular processes and incorporating modified molecules into our lipid nanoparticle formulations. The focus of Savan’s project is on modifying cholesterol, a molecule that is important to both our LNP formulations and cell membranes. The goal is to generate a more potent delivery platform to improve current therapeutics.
Following graduation, Savan intends to pursue a Ph.D. in Bioengineering.