“’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 new Penn Medicine preclinical study demonstrates a simultaneous ‘knockout’ of two inflammatory regulators boosts T cell expansion to attack solid tumors.
by Meagan Raeke
A new approach that delivers a “one-two punch” to help T cells attack solid tumors is the focus of a preclinical study by researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine. The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that targeting two regulators that control gene functions related to inflammation led to at least 10 times greater T cell expansion in models, resulting in increased anti-tumor immune activity and durability.
“We want to unlock CAR T cell therapy for patients with solid tumors, which include the most commonly diagnosed cancer types,” says June, the new study’s senior author. “Our study shows that immune inflammatory regulator targeting is worth additional investigation to enhance T cell potency.”
One of the challenges for CAR T cell therapy in solid tumors is a phenomenon known as T cell exhaustion, where the persistent antigen exposure from the solid mass of tumor cells wears out the T cells to the point that they aren’t able to mount an anti-tumor response. Engineering already exhausted T cells from patients for CAR T cell therapy results in a less effective product because the T cells don’t multiply enough or remember their task as well.
Previous observational studies hinted at the inflammatory regulator Regnase-1 as a potential target to indirectly overcome the effects of T cell exhaustion because it can cause hyperinflammation when disrupted in T cells—reviving them to produce an anti-tumor response. The research team, including lead author David Mai, a bioengineering graduate student in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and co-corresponding author Neil Sheppard, head of the CCI T Cell Engineering Lab, hypothesized that targeting the related, but independent Roquin-1 regulator at the same time could boost responses further.
“Each of these two regulatory genes has been implicated in restricting T cell inflammatory responses, but we found that disrupting them together produced much greater anti-cancer effects than disrupting them individually,” Mai says. “By building on previous research, we are starting to get closer to strategies that seem to be promising in the solid tumor context.”
Interim Provost Beth A. Winkelstein has announced the appointment of Russell J. Composto as Faculty Co-Director of Penn First Plus (P1P), beginning July 1, 2023. Composto is currently Professor of Materials Science and Engineering with secondary appointments in Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Howell Family Faculty Fellow, and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in Penn Engineering.
“Russ Composto has long been one of our campus leaders in advancing support and mentoring for our students,” said Interim Provost Winkelstein, “including new programs for student wellness, community service, and research and mentoring for first-generation and/or low-income students. He is one of the leaders of our exciting new initiative to increase inclusivity in STEM education at Penn, which just received a major six-year grant from the Inclusive Excellence initiative of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Within Penn Engineering, he led the development of a new engineering curriculum and a new program of individualized student advising, both of which have been highly successful in enhancing the academic experiences of our undergraduates.
“I am extremely grateful to Robert Ghrist for his longstanding dedication to Penn’s undergraduates and his leadership over the past five years as an inaugural Faculty Co-Director of P1P, as well as to ongoing Faculty Co-Director Camille Charles, Executive Director Marc Lo, and the outstanding P1P staff and extended team for their work in sustaining P1P’s invaluable mission on our campus.”
Penn First Plus, founded in 2018, provides support, resources and community-building for undergraduate students who identify as lower- to middle-income and/or are the first in their families to attend college. It includes the Shleifer Family Penn First Plus Center in College Hall and the Pre-First Year Program, an intensive four-week summer program for select incoming first-year students, preceding New Student Orientation, that offers comprehensive support services which continue throughout students’ undergraduate experiences at Penn.
Composto has served as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in Penn Engineering since 2015. In more than thirty years at Penn, he has also served as both Undergraduate Chair and Graduate Group Chair of Materials Science and Engineering and has been awarded the Provost’s Award for Distinguished Ph.D. Teaching and Mentoring, the Geoffrey Marshall Mentoring Award of the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools, and the Ford Motor Company Award for Faculty Advising.
He is a world-leading pioneer of polymer science who is a Fellow and former Chair of the Division of Polymer Physics of the American Physical Society, has received a Special Creativity Award from the National Science Foundation, and recently became Co-Director of a major NSF-funded initiative to bring together soft matter, data science, and science policy as part of the NSF Research Traineeship Program, which encourages transformative models for training of STEM graduate students, especially in new, high-priority interdisciplinary research areas. He received a Ph.D. and M.S. from Cornell University and a B.A. in Physics from Gettysburg College.
In many instances, the physical manifestation of cancers and the ways they are subsequently diagnosed is via a tumor, tissue masses of mutated cells and structures that grow excessively. One of the major mysteries in understanding what goes awry in cancers relates to the environments within which these structures grow, commonly known as the tumor microenvironment.
These microenvironments play a role in facilitating tumor survival, growth, and spread. Tumors can help generate their own infrastructure in the form of vasculature, immune cells, signaling molecules, and extracellular matrices (ECMs), three-dimensional networks of collagen-rich support scaffolding for a cell. ECMs also help regulate cellular communications, and in the tumor microenvironment ECMs can be a key promoter of tumor growth by providing structural support for cancerous cells and in modulating signaling pathways that promote growth.
Now, new research led by the School of Arts & Science’sWei Guo and published in the journal Nature Cell Biology has bridged the complex structural interactions within the tumor microenvironment to the signals that trigger tumor growth. The researchers studied cancerous liver cells grown on ECMs of varying stiffness and discovered that the stiffening associated with tumor growth can initiate a cascade that increases the production of small lipid-encapsulated vesicles known as exosomes.
“By recording the number of packages sent, the addresses on these packages, their contents, and most importantly, how they’re regulated and generated, we can better understand the relationship between a patient’s tumor microenvironment and their unique molecular signaling signatures, hinting at more robust personalized cancer therapies,” Radhakrishnan says.
While studying exosomes in relation to tumor growth and metastasis has been well-documented in recent years, researchers have mostly focused on cataloging their characteristics rather than investigating the many processes that govern the creation and shuttling of exosomes between cells. As members of Penn’s Physical Sciences Oncology Center (PSOC), Guo and Radhakrishnan have long collaborated on projects concerning tissue stiffness. For this paper, they sought to elucidate how stiffening promotes exosome trafficking in cancerous intracellular signaling.
“Our lab previously found that high stiffness promotes the secretion of exosomes,” says Di-Ao Liu, co-first author of the paper and a graduate student in the Guo Lab. “Now, we were able to model the stiffening processes through experiments and identify molecular pathways and protein networks that cause this, which better links ECM stiffening to cancerous signaling.”
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.
Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) professors and Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group members Carl June and Avery Posey are leading the charge in T cell therapy and the fight against cancer.
Advances in genome editing through processes such as CRISPR, and the ability to rewire cells through synthetic biology, have led to increasingly elaborate approaches for modifying and supercharging T cells for therapy. Avery Posey, Assistant Professor of Pharmacology, and Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy, explain how new techniques are providing tools to counter some of the limitations of current CAR T cell therapies in a recent Nature feature.
Artist-in-residence and visiting scholar Rebecca Kamen has blended AI and art to produce animated illustrations representing how a dyslexic brain interprets information.
Communicating thoughts with words is considered a uniquely human evolutionary adaptation known as language processing. Fundamentally, it is an information exchange, a lot like data transfer between devices, but one riddled with discrete layers of complexity, as the ways in which our brains interpret and express ideas differ from person to person.
Learning challenges such as dyslexia are underpinned by these differences in language processing and can be characterized by difficulty learning and decoding information from written text.
Artist-in-residence in Penn’s Department of Physics and Astronomy Rebecca Kamen has explored her personal relationship with dyslexia and information exchange to produce works that reflect elements of both her creative process and understanding of language. Kamen unveiled her latest exhibit at Arion Press Gallery in San Francisco, where nine artists with dyslexia were invited to produce imaginative interpretations of learning and experiencing language.
The artists were presented with several prompts in varying formats, including books, words, poems, quotes, articles, and even a single letter, and tasked with creating a dyslexic dictionary: an exploration of the ways in which their dyslexia empowered them to engage in information exchange in unique ways.
“[For the exhibit], each artist selected a word representing the way they learn, and mine was ‘lens,’” explains Kamen. “It’s a word that captures how being dyslexic provides me with a unique perspective for viewing and interacting with the world.”
From an early age, Kamen enjoyed learning about the natural sciences and was excited about the process of discovery. She struggled, however, with reading at school, which initially presented an obstacle to achieving her dreams of becoming a teacher. “I had a difficult time getting into college,” says Kamen. “When I graduated high school, the word ‘dyslexia’ didn’t really exist, so I assumed everyone struggled with reading.”
Kamen was diagnosed with dyslexia well into her tenure as a professor. “Most dyslexic people face challenges that may go unnoticed by others,” she says, “but they usually find creative ways to overcome them.”
This perspective on seeing and experiencing the world through the lens of dyslexia not only informed Kamen’s latest work for the exhibition “Dyslexic Dictionary,” but also showcased her background in merging art and science. For decades, Kamen’s work has investigated the intersection of the two, creating distinct ways of exploring new relationships and similarities.
“Artists and scientists are curious creatures always looking for patterns,” explains Kamen. “And that’s because patterns communicate larger insights about the world around us.”
The researchers studied different information-seeking approaches by monitoring how participants explore Wikipedia pages and categorically related these to two ideas rooted in philosophical understandings of learning: a “busybody,” who typically jumps between diverse ideas and collects loosely connected information; and a more purpose-driven “hunter,” who systematically ties in closely related concepts to fill their knowledge gaps.
They used these classifications to inform their computational model, the knowledge network. This uses text and context to determine the degree of relatedness between the Wikipedia pages and their content—represented by dots connected with lines of varying thickness to illustrate the strength of association.
In an adaption of the knowledge network, Kamen was classified as a dancer, an archetype elaborated on in an accompanying review paper by Dale Zhou, a Ph.D. candidate in Bassett’s Complex Systems Lab, who had also collaborated with Kamen on “Reveal.”
“The dancer can be described as an individual that breaks away from the traditional pathways of investigation,” says Zhou. “Someone who takes leaps of creative imagination and in the process, produces new concepts and radically remodels knowledge networks.”
Dani Smith Bassett is J. Peter Skirkanich Professor in Bioengineering with secondary appointments in the Departments of Physics & Astronomy, Electrical & Systems Engineering, Neurology, and Psychiatry.
David Lydon-Staley is an Assistant Professor in the Annenberg School for Communications and Bioengineering and is an alumnus of the Bassett Lab.
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.”
A recent study by Penn Bioengineering researchers sheds new light on the role of physics in kidney development. The kidney uses structures called nephrons and tubules to filter blood and pass urine to the bladder. Nephron number is set at birth and can vary over an order of magnitude (anywhere from 100,000 to over a million nephrons in an individual kidney). While the reasons for this variability remain unclear, low numbers of nephrons predispose patients to hypertension and chronic kidney disease.
Now, research published in Developmental Cell led by Alex J. Hughes, Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, demonstrates a new physics-driven approach to better visualize and understand how a healthy kidney develops to avoid organizational defects that would impair its function. While previous efforts have typically approached this problem using molecular genetics and mouse models, the Hughes Lab’s physics-based approach could link particular types of defects to this genetic information and possibly highlight new treatments to prevent or fix congenital defects.
During embryonic development, kidney tubules grow and the tips divide to make a branched tree with clusters of nephron stem cells surrounding each branch tip. In order to build more nephrons, the tree needs to grow more branches. To keep the branches from overlapping, the kidney’s surface grows more crowded as the number of branches increase. “At this point, it’s like adding more people to a crowded elevator,” says Louis Prahl, first author of the paper and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Hughes Lab. “The branches need to keep rearranging to accommodate more until organ growth stops.”
To understand this process, Hughes, Prahl and their team investigated branch organization in mouse kidneys as well as using computer models and a 3D printed model of tubules. Their results show that tubules have to actively restructure – essentially divide at narrower angles – to accommodate more tubules. Computer simulations also identified ‘defective’ packing, in which the simulation parameters caused tubules to either overlap or be forced beneath the kidney surface. The team’s experimentation and analysis of published studies of genetic mouse models of kidney disease confirmed that these defects do occur.
This study represents a unique synthesis of different fields to understand congenital kidney disease. Mathematicians have studied geometric packing problems for decades in other contexts, but the structural features of the kidney present new applications for these models. Previous models of kidney branching have approached these problems from the perspective of individual branches or using purely geometric models that don’t account for tissue mechanics. By contrast, The Hughes Lab’s computer model demonstrates the physics of how tubule families interact with each other, allowing them to identify ‘phases’ of kidney organization that either relate to normal kidney development or organizational defects. Their 3D printed model of tubules shows that these effects can occur even when one sets the biology aside.
Hughes has been widely recognized for his research in the understanding of kidney development. This new publication is the first fruit of his 2021 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and he was recently named a 2023 Rising Star by the Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering (CMBE) Special Interest Group. In 2020 he became the first Penn Engineering faculty member to receive the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for his forward-thinking work in the creation of new tools for tissue engineering.
Pediatric nephrologists have long worked to understand the cause of these childhood kidney defects. These efforts are often confounded by a lack of evidence for a single causative mutation. The Hughes Lab’s approach presents a new and different application of the packing problem and could help answer some of these unsolved questions and open doors to prevention of these diseases. Following this study, Hughes and his lab members will continue to explore the physics of kidney tubule packing, looking for interesting connections between packing organization, mechanical stresses between neighboring tubule tips, and nephron formation while attempting to copy these principles to build stem cell derived tissues to replace damaged or diseased kidney tissue. Mechanical forces play an important role in developmental biology and there is much scope for Hughes, Prahl and their colleagues to learn about these properties in relation to the kidney.
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 Jenny Jiang, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Associate Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering.
In order to create personalized immune therapies, researchers need to untangle what is happening between an individual patient’s immune cells and the antigens that they interact with on a molecular level. Immune cell-antigen interactions need to be understood in four different areas in order to create a full picture: the unique genetic sequence of the T cell’s antigen receptors, the antigen specificity of that cell, and both the gene and protein expression of the same cell.
The Status Quo
Prior methods of understanding interactions between T cells and antigens could only get a picture of one or two of these four elements because of technology constraints. Other roadblocks included that cells cultured or engineered in a laboratory setting are not in a natural environment so they won’t express genes or proteins in the way T cells would in the body, and technologies that assess the antigen specificity of T cells were not cost-effective for looking at large numbers of antigens.
The Jiang Lab’s Fix
The lab of Jenny Jiang, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Associate Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, developed a technology called TetTCR-SeqHD, which solves these problems. Using this technology, scientists can now simultaneously profile samples of large numbers of single T cells in the four dimensions using high- throughput screening.
The Jiang Lab’s technology is essentially a method for getting a “full-body scan” of an individual’s T cells and creates a catalog of the different types of T cells and the antigens they respond (or don’t respond) to, paving the way for the ability to better target immune therapies to an individual patient.
“Individual T cells are unique, and that’s the challenge of using one treatment to fit all,” says Jiang. “Identifying antigen specificity and creating therapies that target that specificity in an individual’s T cells will be key to truly personalizing immune therapies in the future.”