How does the placenta keep harmful substances away from developing babies while still providing proper nutrition?
The exact mechanisms remain unknown, which is why the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers University, Tulane University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Rochester have joined together to launch a research center dedicated to solving this mystery and ensuring healthy pregnancies.
A $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will help fund the Integrated Transporter Elucidation Center (InTEC), which will operate from the Rutgers Biomedical Health Sciences campus in Piscataway under the leadership of Lauren Aleksunes, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Rutgers’ Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy and resident scientist in the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOHSI).
“Since my time working as a community pharmacist, I have found the lack of high-quality information about the safety of everyday products on the health of a pregnancy frustrating,” says Aleksunes. “People need to know whether the chemicals in their diet, personal care products and medications can impact their babies. Our goal at InTEC is to better understand how these chemicals travel in and out of the placenta and if they can reach the baby and influence their development.”
Aleksunes will study how transporter proteins carrying nutrients, dietary supplements, medications and toxic chemicals work during pregnancies. Some of the work will test how individual placenta cells respond to various stimuli in the laboratory. Others on the team will examine how environmental factors influence placental transporters during healthy and unhealthy or complicated pregnancies.
Key to this work will be Dan Huh, Associate Professor in Bioengineering in Penn Engineering, who will lead a team with an innovative approach to modeling the transfer of molecules across the human placenta.
As a pioneer of organ-on-a-chip technology, the Huh group will use a novel microengineered system in which maternal tissue engineered from a layer of primary human trophoblasts is grown adjacent to a three-dimensional network of perfusable fetal blood vessels to mimic the human placental barrier. This microphysiological system will be employed as an in vitro platform to simulate and quantitatively analyze the exchange of various substances between maternal and fetal circulation without the need for laboratory animals or placenta explants.
Congratulations to the members of the Penn Bioengineering community who were awarded 2023 Accelerating from Lab to Market Pre-Seed Grants from the University of Pennsylvania Office of the Vice Provost for Research (OVPR).
Three faculty affiliated with Bioengineering were included among the four winners. Andrew Tsourkas, Professor in Bioengineering and Co-Director of the Center for Targeted Therapeutics and Translational Nanomedicine (CT3N), was awarded for his project titled “Precise labeling of protein scaffolds with fluorescent dyes for use in biomedical applications.” Tsourkas’s team created protein scaffold that can better control the location and orientation of fluorescent dyes, commonly used for a variety of biomedical applications, such as labeling antibodies or fluorescence-guided surgery. The Tsourkas Lab specializes in “creating novel targeted imaging and therapeutic agents for the detection and/or treatment of diverse diseases.”
Also awarded were Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group members Mark Anthony Sellmeyer, Assistant Professor in Radiology in the Perelman School of Medicine, and Rahul M. Kohli, Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Perelman School of Medicine.
From the OVPR website:
“Penn makes significant commitments to academic research as one of its core missions, including investment in faculty research programs. In some disciplines, the path by which discovery makes an impact on society is through commercialization. Pre-seed grants are often the limiting step for new ideas to cross the ‘valley of death’ between federal research funding and commercial success. Accelerating from Lab to Market Pre-Seed Grant program aims to help to bridge this gap.”
Read the full list of winning projects and abstracts at the OVPR website.
Paul Ducheyne, Professor Emeritus in Bioengineering and Orthopaedic Surgery Research, has won the 2023 Hironobu Oonishi Memorial Award from the International Society for Ceramics in Medicine (ISCM). This award, the ISCM’s top honor, will only be awarded ten times in total, with previous honorees hailing from Japan and France and focusing on clinical research and life sciences. As the fifth honoree, Ducheyne is the first biomaterials researcher and engineer to win this distinguished prize.
Dr. Hironobu Oonishi was one of the founders of the International Society for Ceramics in Medicine and a leading hip surgeon. He was known for his discovery that irradiated polyethylene displayed greatly improved wear resistance in total joint replacements. In his memory, the ISCM and Kyocera created the Hironobu Oohnishi Memorial Award, with the goal to honor scientists who contributed to ISCM and greatly advanced the clinical use of bioceramics. Each year, the awardee is selected by a committee chaired by Dr. Hiroshi Oonishi, Dr. Hironobu Oonishi’s son. Once ten awardees have been selected, the award granting process will be closed.
Dr. Ducheyne accepted his award at the ISCM annual meeting in Solothurn, Switzerland in October 2023, where he delivered the Opening Ceremony lecture entitled “Bioceramics and Clinical Use – the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
Dr. Ducheyne has been a leading scientist in the field of biomaterial research for decades, with seminal contributions to biomaterials research, especially as it relates to orthopaedics. In bioceramics research, he clearly delineated the unusual properties of engineered bioactive ceramics. Not only was he at the vanguard of the development of these materials, he also generated a fundamental understanding of how these materials exhibit bone bioactive properties and promote skeletal healing. His group has also studied inorganic controlled release materials and has demonstrated the utility of sol-gel synthesized silica-based nanoporous materials for therapeutic use. These materials may well represent a next generation of agents for delivery of drugs, including antibiotics, analgesics, and osteogenic and anti-inflammatory molecules.
During his tenure at Penn, he directed the Center for Bioactive Materials and Tissue Engineering. He was also a Special Guest Professor at the KU Leuven, Belgium. He has founded several successful companies: XeroThera, a spin-out from Penn, that is developing advanced controlled delivery concepts for prophylaxis and treatment of surgical infections; Orthovita, a leading, independent biomaterials company in the world with more than 250 employees at the time of its acquisition by Stryker in June 2011; and Gentis, Inc., which focuses on breakthrough concepts for spinal disorders.
Congratulations to Dr. Ducheyne from everyone at Penn Bioengineering.
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).
Akin to the packages sent from one person to another via an elaborate postal system, cells send tiny parcels that bear contents and packaging material that serve key purposes: To protect the contents from the outside world and to make sure it gets to the right place via a label with an address.
These packages are known as extracellular vesicles (EVs)—lipid-bound molecules that serve a variety of regulatory and maintenance functions throughout the body. They assist in the removal of unwanted materials within the cell, and they transport proteins, aid in DNA and RNA transfer, and promote tumorigeneses in cancerous cells.
Given their myriad roles, EVs have taken center stage for many researchers in the biomedical space as they have the potential to improve current methods of disease detection and treatment. The main challenge, however, is accurately identifying the molecular contents of EVs while also characterizing the EVs, which, unlike other cellular components that are more homogenous, have more heterogeneity.
Now, a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania has developed a novel platform, droplet-free double digital assay, for not only profiling individual EVs but also accurately discerning their molecular contents. The researchers took the digital assay, which quantifies the contents of a molecule via binary metric—a 1 corresponds to the presence of a molecule and a zero to the lack thereof—and applies it to the EV. The work is published in Advanced Science.
The researchers first compartmentalized individual EVs utilizing a microwell approach to isolate the EVs. Next, they captured individual molecules within the EVs and amplified the signal for clarity. The team then was able to determine the expression levels of pivotal EV biomarkers with remarkable precision via fluorescence.
Jina Ko is an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine and an assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania.
David Reynolds is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Bioengineering in Penn Engineering.
Other authors include, Menghan Pan, George Galanis, Yoon Ho Roh, Renee-Tyler T. Morales, Shailesh Senthil Kumar, and Su-Jin Heo of the Department of Bioengineering at Penn Engineering; Jingbo Yang and Xiaowei Xu of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Penn Medicine; and Wei Guo of the Department of Biology in the School of Arts & Sciences at Penn.
The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health: grants R00CA256353, R35 GM141832, and CA174523 (SPORE).
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.
In just two years since CiPD was founded, the outcomes of this newly conceived research partnership have proven its value: microrobots that clean teeth for people with limited mobility, a completely new understanding of bacterial physics in tooth decay, enzymes from plant chloroplasts that degrade plaque, promising futures for lipid nanoparticles in oral cancer treatment and new techniques and materials to restore nerves in facial reconstructive surgery.
In addition, CiPD is training the next generation of dentists, scientists and engineers through an NIH/NIDCR-sponsored postdoctoral training program as well as fellowships from industry.
The two urge “the academic community to adopt a coordinated approach uniting dental medicine and engineering to support research, training and entrepreneurship to address unmet needs and spur oral health care innovations.”
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.
The award recognizes faculty who are conducting some of the most innovative and impactful studies in the field of biomedical engineering. Recipients will present their research and be officially recognized at the BMES Annual Meeting in October.
Mitchell is being honored for creating an RNA nanoparticle therapy that stops the spread of the deadly bone marrow cancer multiple myeloma and helps to eliminate it altogether. Known for being difficult to treat, the disease kills over 100,000 people every year.
“We urgently need innovative, effective therapies against this cancer,” Mitchell says. “The nanotechnology we developed can potentially serve as a platform to treat multiple myeloma and other bone marrow-based malignancies.”
Mitchell, along with Christian Figuerora-Espada, a doctoral student in Bioengineering, previously published a study in PNAS describing how their RNA nanoparticle therapy stops multiple myeloma from moving through the blood vessels and mutating. In their current paper in Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering, which expands upon this RNA nanoparticle platform, they show that inhibition of both multiple myeloma migration and adhesion to bone marrow blood vessels, combined with an FDA-approved multiple myeloma therapeutic, extends survival in a mouse model of multiple myeloma.
A team of recent Penn Bioengineering graduates have been included in list of prominent young Philadelphia innovators as chosen by The Philadelphia Business Journal and PHL Inno.
Gabriella Daltoso, Sophie Ishiwari, Gabriela Cano, Caroline Amanda Magro, and Tifara Eliana Boyce founded Sonura as their Senior Design Project in Bioengineering. The team, who all graduated in 2023, picked up a competitive President’s Innovation Prize for their beanie that promotes the cognitive and socioemotional development of newborns in the NICU by protecting them from the auditory hazards of their environments while fostering parental connection. Now, they have been included in the list of fourteen Inno Under 25 honorees for 2023.
“To determine this year’s list, the Philadelphia Business Journal and PHL Inno sought nominations from the public and considered candidates put forth by our editorial team. To be considered, nominees must be 25 years of age or younger and work for a company based in Greater Philadelphia and/or reside in the region.
Honorees span a wide range of industries, including consumer goods, biotechnology and environmental solutions. Many are products of the region’s colleges and universities, though some studied farther afield before setting up shop locally.”