Reimagining Scientific Discovery Through the Lens of an Artist

by Erica K. Brockmeier

Rebecca Kamen, Penn artist-in-residence and visiting scholar, has a new exhibition titled “Reveal: The Art of Reimagining Scientific Discovery” at American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center that explores curiosity and the creative process across art and science. (Image: Greg Staley)

Rebecca Kamen, Penn artist-in-residence and visiting scholar, has long been interested in science and the natural world. As a Philadelphia native and an artist with a 40-plus-year career, her intersectional work sheds light on the process of scientific discovery and its connections to art, with previous exhibitions that celebrate Apollo 11’s “spirit of exploration and discovery” to new representations of the periodic table of elements.

Now, in her latest exhibition, Kamen has created a series of pieces that highlight how the creative processes in art and science are interconnected. In “Reveal: The Art of Reimagining Scientific Discovery,” Kamen chronicles her own artistic process while providing a space for self-reflection that enables viewers to see the relationship between science, art, and their own creativity.

The exhibit, on display at the Katzen Art Center at American University, was inspired by the work of Penn professor Dani Bassett and American University professor Perry Zurn, the exhibit’s faculty sponsor. The culmination of three years of work, “Reveal” features collaborations with a wide range of scientists, including philosophers at American University, microscopists at the National Institutes of Health studying SARS-CoV-2 , and researchers in Penn’s Complex Systems Lab and the Addiction, Health, and Adolescence (AHA!) Lab.

Continue reading at Penn Today.

Dani S. Bassett is the J. Peter Skirkanich Professor in the departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania. She also has appointments in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences and the departments of Neurology and Psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine at Penn.

Rebecca Kamen is a visiting scholar and artist-in-residence in the Department of Physics & Astronomy in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences.

David Lydon-Staley is an assistant professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at Penn and was formerly a postdoc in the Bassett lab.

Dale Zhou is a Ph.D. candidate in Penn’s Neuroscience Graduate Group.

“Reveal: The Art of Reimagining Scientific Discovery,” presented by the Alper Initiative for Washington Art and curated by Sarah Tanguy, is on display at the American University Museum in Washington, D.C., until Dec. 12.

The exhbition catalog, which includes an essay on “Radicle Curiosity” by Perry Zurn and Dani S. Bassett, can be viewed online.

Penn Establishes the Center for Precision Engineering for Health with $100 Million Commitment

by Evan Lerner

The Center for Precision Engineering for Health will bring together researchers spanning multiple scientific fields to develop novel therapeutic biomaterials, such as a drug-delivering nanoparticles that can be designed to adhere to only to the tissues they target. (Image: Courtesy of the Mitchell Lab)

The University of Pennsylvania announced today that it has made a $100 million commitment in its School of Engineering and Applied Science to establish the Center for Precision Engineering for Health.

The Center will conduct interdisciplinary, fundamental, and translational research in the synthesis of novel biomolecules and new polymers to develop innovative approaches to design complex three dimensional structures from these new materials to sense, understand, and direct biological function.

“Biomaterials represent the ‘stealth technology’ which will create breakthroughs in improving health care and saving lives,” says Penn President Amy Gutmann. “Innovation that combines precision engineering and design with a fundamental understanding of cell behavior has the potential to have an extraordinary impact in medicine and on society. Penn is already well established as an international leader in innovative health care and engineering, and this new Center will generate even more progress to benefit people worldwide.”

Penn Engineering will hire five new President’s Penn Compact Distinguished Professors, as well as five additional junior faculty with fully funded faculty positions that are central to the Center’s mission. New state-of-the-art labs will provide the infrastructure for the research. The Center will seed grants for early-stage projects to foster advances in interdisciplinary research across engineering and medicine that can then be parlayed into competitive grant proposals.

“Engineering solutions to problems within human health is one of the grand challenges of the discipline,” says Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering. “Our faculty are already leading the charge against these challenges, and the Center will take them to new heights.”

This investment represents a turning point in Penn’s ability to bring creative, bio-inspired approaches to engineer novel behaviors at the molecular, cellular, and tissue levels, using biotic and abiotic matter to improve the understanding of the human body and to develop new therapeutics and clinical breakthroughs. It will catalyze integrated approaches to the modeling and computational design of building blocks of peptides, proteins, and polymers; the synthesis, processing, and fabrication of novel materials; and the experimental characterizations that are needed to refine approaches to design, processing, and synthesis.

“This exciting new initiative,” says Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein, “brings together the essential work of Penn Engineering with fields across our campus, especially in the Perelman School of Medicine. It positions Penn for global leadership at the convergence of materials science and biomedical engineering with innovative new techniques of simulation, synthesis, assembly, and experimentation.”

Examples of the types of work being done in this field include new nanoparticle technologies to improve storage and distribution of vaccines, such as the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines; the development of protocells, which are synthetic cells that can be engineered to do a variety of tasks, including adhering to surfaces or releasing drugs; and vesicle based liquid biopsy for diagnosing cancer.

N.B.: This story originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

Beth Winkelstein is the Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor in Bioengineering.

The featured illustration comes from a recent study led by Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, and Margaret Billingsley, a graduate student in his lab.

Engineering Entrepreneurship with Professor Thomas Cassel

Thomas A.V. Cassel, Practice Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, recently sat down with Dayo Adetu (BSE 2019, MSE 2021), President of the Penn Graduate Association of Bioengineers (GABE), to give his insight into engineering entrepreneurship. Cassel is the Director of Penn’s Engineering Entrepreneurship Program, which he founded twenty one years ago. He joined Penn’s faculty in 1999 following a 20-year career of entrepreneurial business leadership.

Watch the video to hear about Cassel’s favorite Penn memories, the day-to-day experience of working at a startup, advice for venturing into entrepreneurship, and more.

Penn Engineers Will Use NSF Grant to Develop ‘DReAM’ for On-demand, On-site mRNA Manufacturing

by Melissa Pappas

Daeyeon Lee, Kathleen Stebe and Michael Mitchell

COVID-19 vaccines are just the beginning for mRNA-based therapies; enabling a patient’s body to make almost any given protein could revolutionize care for other viruses, like HIV, as well as various cancers and genetic disorders. However, because mRNA molecules are very fragile, they require extremely low temperatures for storage and transportation. The logistical challenges and expense of maintaining these temperatures must be overcome before mRNA therapies can become truly widespread.

With these challenges in mind, Penn Engineering researchers are developing a new manufacturing technique that would be able to produce mRNA sequences on demand and on-site, isolating them in a way that removes the need for cryogenic temperatures. With more labs able to make and store mRNA-based therapeutics on their own, the “cold chain” between manufacturer and patient can be made shorter, faster and less expensive.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is supporting this project, known as Distributed Ribonucleic Acid Manufacturing, or DReAM, through a four-year, $2 million grant from its Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) program.

The project will be led by Daeyeon Lee, Evan C Thompson Term Chair for Excellence in Teaching and Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), along with Kathleen Stebe, Richer and Elizabeth Goodwin Professor in CBE and in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. They will collaborate with Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering, Drexel University’s Masoud Soroush and Michael Grady, the University of Oklahoma’s Dimitrios Papavassiliou and the University of Colorado Boulder’s Joel Kaar.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Developing New Technologies to Solve the Mysteries of the Brain

Flavia Vitale, assistant professor of neurology, bioengineering, and physical medicine and rehabilitation, and founder of the multidisciplinary Vitale Lab. (Image: Penn Medicine News)

Neurology, bioengineering, and physical medicine and rehabilitation might not seem like three disciplines that fit together, but for Flavia Vitale, an assistant professor of all three, it makes perfect sense. As the director and principal investigator at the Vitale Lab, her research focuses on developing new technologies that help to study how the brain and neuromuscular systems function.

Years ago, while she was working at Rice University developing new materials and devices that work in the body in a safer, more effective way, former president Barack Obama launched the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, aimed at revolutionizing the understanding of the human brain. This emphasis on how little is known about brain structure and function inspired Vitale to refocus her research on developing technology and materials that will help researchers solve the mysteries of the brain.

In 2018, she joined the faculty at the Perelman School of Medicine as an assistant professor of neurology, bioengineering, and physical medicine and rehabilitation, and founded the multidisciplinary Vitale Lab, where her team develops cutting edge materials and devices that will someday help clinicians diagnose and treat patients with complicated brain and neurological conditions. She is also one of the engineers looking forward to using new combined clinical/research facilities in neuroscience at Penn Medicine’s new Pavilion where new neurotechnoloigies will be developed and tested.

“My main goal is to create tools that can help solve mysteries of the brain, and address the needs of clinicians,” she says.

“My lab was recently awarded two grants totaling $4.5 million from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. In order to obtain more precise insights, noninvasively, into brain activity to improve gene therapy treatments for a range of diagnoses, from Parkinson’s disease to glioblastoma. The first grant is designated for the development of a novel surgical device for delivering gene-based therapeutics to the brain. The second is for optimization and pre-clinical validation of a novel EEG electrode technology, which uses a soft, flexible, conductive nanomaterial rather than metal and gels. We hope to confirm that these technologies work as well as, if not better than existing ones.”

Read the full story in Penn Medicine News.

Penn Dental Medicine, Penn Engineering Award First IDEA Prize to Advance Oral Health Care Innovation

Henry Daniell and Daeyeon Lee

by Beth Adams

Penn Dental Medicine and Penn Engineering, which teamed earlier this year to launch the Center for Innovation and Precision Dentistry (CiPD), recently awarded the Center’s first IDEA (Innovation in Dental Medicine and Engineering to Advance Oral Health) Prize. Dr. Henry Daniell, W.B. Miller Professor and Vice Chair in the Department of Basic & Translational Sciences at Penn Dental Medicine, and his collaborator, Dr. Daeyeon Lee, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Penn Engineering, are the inaugural recipients, awarded the Prize for a project titled “Engineered Chewing Gum for Debulking Biofilm and Oral SARS-CoV-2.”

“The IDEA Prize was created to support Penn Dental and Penn Engineering collaboration, and this project exemplifies the transformative potential of this interface to develop new solutions to treat oral diseases,” says Dr. Michel Koo, Professor in the Department of Orthodontics and Divisions of Pediatric Dentistry and Community Oral Health at Penn Dental Medicine and Co-Director of the CiPD.

“The prize is an exciting opportunity to unite Drs. Lee and Daniell and their vision to bring together state-of-the-art functional materials and drug-delivery platforms,” adds Dr. Kathleen Stebe, CiPD Co-Director and Goodwin Professor of Engineering and Applied Science at Penn Engineering.

Open to faculty from Penn Dental Medicine and Penn Engineering, the IDEA Prize, to be awarded annually, supports collaborative teams investigating novel ideas using engineering approaches to kickstart competitive proposals for federal funding and/or private sector/industry for commercialization. Awardees are selected based on originality and novelty; the impact of the proposed innovation of oral/craniofacial health; and the team composition with complementary expertise. Indeed, the project of Drs. Daniell and Lee reflects all three.

The collaborative proposal combines Dr. Daniell’s novel plant-based drug development/delivery platform with Dr. Lee’s novel polymeric structures to create an affordable, long-lasting way to reduce dental biofilms (plaque) and oral SARS-CoV-2 transmission using a uniquely consumer-friendly delivery system — chewing gum.

“Oral diseases afflict 3.5 billion people worldwide, and many of these conditions are caused by microbes that accumulate on teeth, forming difficult to treat biofilms,” says Dr. Daniell. “In addition, saliva is a source of pathogenic microbes and aerosolized particles transmit disease, including COVID-19, so there is an urgent need to develop new methods to debulk pathogens in the saliva and decrease their aerosol transmission.”

Continue reading at Penn Dental Medicine News.

N.B. Henry Daniell and Daeyeon Lee are members of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Developing Endotracheal Tubes that Release Antimicrobial Peptides

by Evan Lerner

Scanning electron microscope images of endotracheal tubes at three levels of magnification. After 24 hours of Staphylococcus epidermidis exposure, tubes coated with the researchers’ AMPs (right) showed decreased biofilm production, as compared with tubes coated with just polymer (center) and uncoated tubes (left).

Endotracheal tubes are a mainstay of hospital care, as they ensure a patient’s airway is clear when they can’t breathe on their own. However, keeping a foreign object inserted in this highly sensitive part of the anatomy comes is not without risk, such as the possibility of infection, inflammation and a condition known as subglottic stenosis, in which scar tissue narrows the airway.

Broad-spectrum antibiotics are one way to mitigate these risks, but come with risks of their own, including harming beneficial bacteria and contributing to antibiotic resistance.

With this conundrum in mind, Riccardo Gottardi, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and of Bioengineering at Penn Engineering, along with Bioengineering graduate students and lab members Matthew Aronson and Paul Gehret, are developing endotracheal tubes that can provide a more targeted antimicrobial defense.

In a proof-of-concept study published in the journal The Laryngoscope, the team showed how a different type of antimicrobial agent could be incorporated into the tubes’ polymer coating, as well as preliminary results suggesting these devices would better preserve a patient’s microbiome.

Instead, the investigators explored the use of antimicrobial peptides (AMPs), which are small proteins that destabilize bacterial membranes, causing bacterial cells to fall apart and die. This mechanism of action allows them to target specific bacteria and makes them unlikely to promote antimicrobial resistance. Prior studies have shown that it is possible to coat endotracheal tubes with conventional antibiotics, so the research team investigated the possibility of incorporating AMPs into polymer-coated tubes to inhibit bacterial growth and modulate the upper-airway microbiome.

The researchers, led by Matthew Aronson, a graduate student in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, tested their theory by creating a polymer coating that would release Lasioglossin-III, an AMP with broad-spectrum antibacterial activity. They found that Lasio released from coated endotracheal tubes, reached the expected effective concentration rapidly and continued to release at the same concentration for a week, which is the typical timeframe that an endotracheal is used before being changed. The investigators also tested their drug-eluting tube against airway microbes, including S. epidermidis, S. pneumoniae, and human microbiome samples and observed significant antibacterial activity, as well as prevention of bacterial adherence to the tube.

Read “CHOP Researchers Develop Coating for Endotracheal Tubes that Releases Antimicrobial Peptides” at CHOP News.

This post originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

Penn Engineers Create Faster and Cheaper COVID-19 Testing With Pencil Lead

by Melissa Pappas

César de la Fuente, PhD

Testing is key to understanding and controlling the spread of COVID-19, which has already taken more than four million lives around the world. However, current tests are limited by the tradeoff between accuracy and the time it takes to analyze a sample.

Another challenge of current COVID-19 tests is cost. Most tests are expensive to produce and require trained personnel to administer and analyze them. Testing in low-and middle-income communities has therefore been largely inaccessible, leaving individuals at greater risk of viral spread.

To address cost, time and accuracy, a new electrochemical test developed by Penn researchers uses electrodes made from graphite — the same material found in pencil lead. Developed by César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Bioengineering,  Microbiology and Psychiatry with a secondary appointment in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, these electrodes reduce the cost to $1.50 per test and require only 6.5 minutes to deliver 100-pecent-accurate results from saliva samples and up to 88 percent accuracy in nasal samples.

While his previous research highlights the invention of RAPID (Real-time Accurate Portable Impedimetric Detection prototype 1.0), a COVID-19 testing kit which uses screen-printed electrodes, this new research published in PNAS presents LEAD (Low-cost Electrochemical Advanced Diagnostic), using the same concept as RAPID but with less expensive materials. De la Fuente’s current test reduces costs from $4.67 per test (RAPID) to $1.50 per test (LEAD) just by changing the building material of the electrodes.

“Both RAPID and LEAD work on the same principle of electrochemistry,” says de la Fuente. “However, LEAD is easier to assemble, it can be used by anyone and the materials are cheaper and more accessible than those of RAPID. This is important because we are using an abundant material, graphite, the same graphite used in pencils, to build the electrode to make testing more accessible to lower-income communities.”

This figure, adapted from the paper, shows the functionalization steps of LEAD which prepares the electrodes to bind to the sample. The height of the peaks indicates whether the sample is negative or positive. Because the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in a positive sample binds to the electrode, it inhibits the emitted signal and produces a smaller peak.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Jenny Jiang Receives Immunotherapy Grant from Cancer Research Institute

Jenny Jiang, Ph.D.

Jenny Jiang, the Peter & Geri Skirkanich Associate Professor of Innovation in the department of Bioengineering, has received a Lloyd J. Old STAR Program grant from the Cancer Research Institute (CRI), which is a major supporter of cancer immunotherapy research and clinical trials with the goal of curing all types of cancer.

The CRI Lloyd J. Old Scientists Taking Risks (STAR) Program “provides long-term funding to mid-career scientists, giving them the freedom and flexibility to pursue high-risk, high-reward research at the forefront of discovery and innovation in cancer immunotherapy.” This prestigious grant was give to six awardees this year, chosen from a pool of hundreds of applicants, and recognizes “future leaders in the field of cancer immunotherapy [who are expected to] carry out transformational research.”

The Old STAR Program Grant comes with $1.25 million in funding over 5 years to support the awardees’ cancer immunology research.

Jiang, who recently joined Penn Bioengineering, is a pioneer in developing tools in genomics, biophysics, immunology, and informatics and applying them to study systems immunology and immune engineering in human diseases. She was also inducted into the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) College of Fellows in March 2021 for her outstanding contributions to the field of systems immunology and immunoengineering and devotion to the success of women in engineering. Jiang’s research focuses on systems immunology by developing technologies that enable high-throughput, high-content, single cell profiling of T cells in health and disease and she is recognized as one of the leading authorities in systems immunology and immunoengineering.

“The STAR Award from CRI allows my lab to answer some of the fundamental questions in T cell biology, such as is the T cell repertoire complete to cover all possible cancer antigens, as well as to improve the efficacy of T cell based cancer immunotherapies,” says Jiang.

Decoding How the Brain Accurately Depicts Ever-changing Visual Landscapes

A collaborative study finds that deeper regions of the brain encode visual information more slowly, enabling the brain to identify fast-moving objects and images more accurately and persistently.

by Erica K. Brockmeier

Busy pedestrian crossing at Hong Kong

New research from the University of Pennsylvania, the Scuola Internazionale Superiore de Studi Avanzati (SISSA), and KU Leuven details the time scales of visual information processing across different regions of the brain. Using state-of-the-art experimental and analytical techniques, the researchers found that deeper regions of the brain encode visual information slowly and persistently, which provides a mechanism for explaining how the brain accurately identifies fast-moving objects and images. The findings were published in Nature Communications.

Understanding how the brain works is a major research challenge, with many theories and models developed to explain how complex information is processed and represented. One area of particular interest is vision, a major component of neural activity. In humans, for example, there is evidence that around half of the neurons in the cortex are related to vision.

Researchers are eager to understand how the visual cortex can process and retain information about objects in motion in a way that allows people to take in dynamic scenes while still retaining information about and recognizing the objects around them.

“One of the biggest challenges of all the sensory systems is to maintain a consistent representation of our surroundings, despite the constant changes taking place around us. The same holds true for the visual system,” says Davide Zoccolan, director of SISSA’s Visual Neuroscience Laboratory. “Just look around us: objects, animals, people, all on the move. We ourselves are moving. This triggers rapid fluctuations in the signals acquired by the retina, and until now it was unclear whether the same type of variations apply to the deeper layers of the visual cortex, where information is integrated and processed. If this was the case, we would live in tremendous confusion.”

Experiments using static stimuli, such as photographs, have found that information from the sensory periphery are processed in the visual cortex according to a finely tuned hierarchy. Deeper regions of the brain then translate this information about visual scenes into more complex shapes, objects, and concepts. But how this process works in more dynamic, real-world settings is not well understood.

To shed light on this, the researchers analyzed neural activity patterns in multiple visual cortical areas in rodents while they were being shown dynamic visual stimuli. “We used three distinct datasets: one from SISSA, one from a group in KU Leuven led by Hans Op de Beeck and one from the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle,” says Zoccolan. “The visual stimuli used in each were of different types. In SISSA, we created dedicated video clips showing objects moving at different speeds. The other datasets were acquired using various kinds of clips, including from films.”

Next, the researchers analyzed the signals registered in different areas of the visual cortex through a combination of sophisticated algorithms and models developed by Penn’s Eugenio Pasini and Vijay Balasubramanian. To do this, the researchers developed a theoretical framework to help connect the images in the movies to the activity of specific neurons in order to determine how neural signals evolve over different time scales.

“The art in this science was figuring out an analysis method to show that the processing of visual images is getting slower as you go deeper and deeper in the brain,” says Balasubramanian. “Different levels of the brain process information over different time scales; some things could be more stable, some quicker. It’s very hard to tell if the time scales across the brain are changing, so our contribution was to devise a method for doing this.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Vijay Balasubramanian is the Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the School of Arts & Sciences and a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group at the University of Pennsylvania.