With NIH Pioneer Award, Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins Will Study Genome Folding’s Role in Long-term Memory

by Evan Lerner

Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins (upper left) and members of her lab.

Each year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recognizes exceptionally creative scientists through its High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program. The four awards granted by this program are designed to support researchers whose “out of the box” and “trailblazing” ideas have the potential for broad impact.

Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins, Associate Professor and Dean’s Faculty Fellow in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering and the Perelman School of Medicine’s Department of Genetics, is one such researcher. As a recipient of an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, she will receive $3.5 million over five years to support her work on the role that the physical folding of chromatin plays in the encoding of neural circuit and synapse properties contributing to long-term memory.

Phillips-Cremins’ award is one of 106 grants made through the High-Risk, High-Reward program this year, though she is only one of 10 to receive the Pioneer Award, which is the program’s largest funding opportunity.

“The science put forward by this cohort is exceptionally novel and creative and is sure to push at the boundaries of what is known,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins.

Phillips-Cremins’ research is in the general field of epigenetics, the molecular and structural modifications that allow the genome — an identical copy of which is found in each cell — to express genes differently at different times and in different parts of the body. Within this field, her lab focuses on higher-order folding patterns of the DNA sequence, which bring distant sets of genes and regulatory elements into close proximity with one another as they are compressed inside the cell’s nucleus.

Previous work from the Cremins lab has investigated severe genome misfolding patterns common across a class of genetic neurological disorders, including fragile X syndrome, Huntington’s disease, ALS and Friedreich’s ataxia.

With the support of the Pioneer Award, she and the members of her lab will extend that research to a more fundamental question of neuroscience: how memory is encoded over decades, despite the rapid turnover of the relevant proteins and RNA sequences within the brain’s synapses.

“Our long-term goals are to understand how, when and why pathologic genome misfolding leads to synaptic dysfunction by way of disrupted gene expression,” said Phillips-Cremins, “as well as to engineer the genome’s structure-function relationship to reverse pathologic synaptic defects in debilitating neurological diseases.”

Originally posted in Penn Engineering Today.

Engineering and Medicine Researchers Collaborate on Studies of Genome Folding in Health and Disease

(Left to right) Top row: Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins, Rajan Jain, and Eric Joyce. Middle row: Melike Lakadamyali, Golnaz Vahedi, and Gerd Blobel. Bottom row: Bomyi Lim, Arjun Raj, and Stanley Qi.

Popular accounts of the human genome often depict it as a long string of DNA base pairs, but in reality the genome is separated into chromosomes that are tightly twisted and coiled into complex three-dimensional structures. These structures create a myriad of connections between sites on the genome that would be distant from one another if stretched out end-to-end. These “long range interactions” are not incidental — they regulate the activity of our genes during development and can cause disease when disrupted.

Now two teams of researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, each led by Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins,  associate professor and Dean’s Faculty Fellow in the Department of Bioengineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Science and of Genetics at the Perelman School of Medicine have been awarded grants totaling $9 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as part of a major NIH Common Fund initiative to understand such 3D-genomic interactions.

The initiative, known as the 4D Nucleome Program, broadly aims to map higher-order genome structures across space and time, as well as to understand how the twists and loops of the DNA sequence govern genome function and cellular phenotype in health and disease.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

N.B.: In addition to Phillips-Cremins, collaborators include Arjun Raj, Professor in Bioengineering and Genetics, and Bioengineering Graduate Group Members Melike Lakadamyali, Associate Professor in Physiology, and Bomyi Lim, Assistant Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Jennifer Phillips-Cremins Promoted to Associate Professor

 

Jennifer Phillips-Cremins, Ph.D.

by Sophie Burkholder

Jennifer Phillips-Cremins, Ph.D., was recently promoted to the tenured position of Associate Professor in Penn’s Department of Bioengineering. Cremins, leads a lab on campus in 3D Epigenomes and Systems Neurobiology.

In a recent piece profiling top technologies to watch in 2020, Cremins spoke to Nature about which technological trends she saw as being important for the year to come. In the panel, which highlighted perspectives from a panel of researchers across several fields, Cremins discussed the increasing relevance of innovations that would allow researchers to study the way that folding patterns within the human genome can influence how genes are expressed in  healthy individuals and misregulated in human disease.

One such innovation is actually employed by the Cremins Lab: light-activated dynamic looping (LADL). This technique uses both CRISPR/Cas9 and optogenetics to induce folding patterns into the genome on demand, using light as a trigger. In doing so, Cremins and her fellow researchers can more efficiently study the patterns of the human genome, and what effects certain folding patterns can have on the gene expression  state of the cell.

Now, with her new promotion, Cremins can continue advancing her research in understanding the genetic and epigenetic mechanisms that regulate neural connections during brain development, with a focus on how that understanding can eventually lead to better treatments of neurological disease. Beyond the lab, she’ll now lead a new Spatial Epigenetics program, bringing together scientists across Penn’s campus to understand how the spatial connections between biomolecules influence biological behavior. She will also continue teaching her hallmark course for Penn Bioengineering undergraduate students, Biological Data Science, and her more advanced graduate-level course in epigenomics. Congratulations, Dr. Cremins!

Week in BioE (August 16, 2019)

by Sophie Burkholder

Electrode Arrays and Star Wars Help to Inspire a New Prosthetic Arm

Brain-controlled prosthetic arm, Wikimedia commons

After nearly fifteen years of work, a new high-tech prosthetic arm from researchers at the University of Utah allows hand amputees to pluck grapes, pick up eggs without breaking them, and even put on their wedding rings. Named after Luke Skywalker’s robotic hand in the Star Wars saga, the LUKE Arm includes sensors that better mimic the way the human body sends information to the brain, allowing users to distinguish between soft and hard surfaces and to perform more complicated tasks. The arm relies heavily on an electrode array invented by University of Utah biomedical engineering professor Richard A. Normann, Ph.D., which is a bundle of microelectrodes that enable a computer to read signals from connected nerves in the user’s forearm.

But the biggest innovation in the use of these electrode arrays for the LUKE Arm is in the way they allow the prosthetic to mimic the sense of feeling on the surface of an object that indicates how much pressure should be applied when handling it. Gregory Clark, Ph.D., an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Utah and the leader of the LUKE Arm project, says the key to improving these functions in the prosthetic was by more closely mimicking the path that this information takes to the brain, as opposed to merely what comprises that sensory information. In the future, Clark hopes to improve upon the LUKE Arm by including more inputs, like one for temperature data, and on making them more portable by eliminating the device’s need for computer connection.

Philly Voice Recognizes the Cremins Lab’s Innovations in Light-Activated Gene-Folding

While technological advancements over the past few decades have opened doors to understanding the topological structures of DNA, we still have far more to learn about how these structures impact and contribute to genome function. But here at Penn, the Cremins Laboratory in 3D Epigenomes and Systems Neurobiology hopes to fix that. Led by Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins, Ph.D., members of the lab use light-activated dynamic looping (LADL) to better understand the way that genome topological properties and folding can affect protein translation. Cremins and her lab use this technique to force specific genome folds to interact with each other, and create temporary DNA loops that can then be bound together in the presence of blue light for certain proteins in the Arabidopsis plant. Using the data from these tests, researchers can better understand the genome structure-function relationships, and hopefully open the door to new treatments for diseases in which expression or mis-expression of certain genes is the cause.

Artificial Cells Can Deliver Molecules Better than the Real Thing

From pills to vaccines, ways to deliver drugs into the body have been constantly evolving since the early days of medicine.

Now, a new study from an interdisciplinary team led by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania provides a new platform for how drugs could be delivered to their targets in the future. Their work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research focuses on a dendrimersome, a compartment with a lamellar structure and size that mimic a living cell. It can be thought of as the shipping box of the cellular world that carries an assortment of molecules as cargo.

The scientists found that these dendrimersomes, which have a multilayered, onion-like structure, were able to “carry” high concentrations of molecules that don’t like water, which is common in pharmaceutical drugs. They were also able to carry these molecules more efficiently than other commercially available vessels. Additionally, the building block of the cell-like compartment, a janus dendrimer, is classified as an amphiphile, meaning it contains molecules that don’t like water and also molecules that are soluble in water, like lipids, that make up natural membranes.

“This is a different amphiphile that makes really cool self-assembled onions into which we were able to load a bunch of molecular cargos,” says co-author Matthew Good.

Read the rest of the story on Penn Today.

A Warm Evening Bath Could Improve Sleep Quality

In a recent review of over 5,000 sleep studies, biomedical engineering researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found a connection between water-based passive body heating and sleep onset latency, efficiency, and quality. Using meta-analytical tools to compare all of the studies and patient data, lead author and Ph.D. candidate Shahab Haghayegh and his team found that a warm bath in the temperature range of 104-109 degrees Fahrenheit taken 1-2 hours before bed has the ability to improve all three considered sleep categories. This makes sense considering that our body’s Circadian rhythms govern both our sleep cycles and temperature, bringing us to a higher temperature during the day and a lower one at night during sleep. In fact, this lowering of body temperature before sleep is what helps to trigger the onset of sleep, so taking a warm bath and allowing your body to cool down from it before going to sleep enhances the body’s own efforts of naturally cooling down before we go to bed. With this new and comprehensive review, those who suffer from poor sleep quality may soon find solace in temperature regulation therapy systems.

People & Places

With the recent 50th anniversary of the first moon landing by Americans Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins in 1969, ABC News looked back at one of the women involved in the project. Judy Sullivan was a biomedical engineer at the time of the project, and served as the lead engineer of the biomedical system for Apollo 11. In this role, she led studies on the astronauts’ breathing rates and sensor capabilities for the devices being sent into space to help the astronauts monitor their health. For the Apollo 11 mission and a lot of Sullivan’s early work at NASA, she worked on teams of all men, as women were often encouraged to become teachers, secretaries, or homemakers over other professions. Today, Sullivan says she’s thrilled that women have more career options to choose from, and wants to continue seeing more women getting involved in math and science.

We would like to congratulate Sanjay Kumar, M.D., Ph.D., on his appointment as the new Department Chair of Bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Since joining the faculty in 2005, Kumar has received several prestigious awards including the NSF Career Award, the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, and the Berkeley student-voted Outstanding Teacher Award.