The Heilmeier Award honors a Penn Engineering faculty member whose work is scientifically meritorious and has high technological impact and visibility. It is named for the late George H. Heilmeier, a Penn Engineering alumnus and member of the School’s Board of Advisors, whose technological contributions include the development of liquid crystal displays and whose honors include the National Medal of Science and Kyoto Prize.
Raj, who also holds an appointment in Genetics in the Perelman School of Medicine, is a pioneer in the burgeoning field of single-cell engineering and biology. Powered by innovative techniques he has developed for molecular profiling of single cells, his scientific discoveries range from the molecular underpinnings of cellular variability to the behavior of single cells across biology, including in diseases such as cancer.
Raj will deliver the 2023-24 Heilmeier Lecture at Penn Engineering during the spring 2024 semester.
This story originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.
A research team led by engineers at the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern University scientists has created a new synthetic biology approach, or a “QR code for cancer cells,” to follow tumor cells over time, finding there are meaningful differences in why a cancer cell dies or survives in response to anti-cancer therapies.
Remarkably, what fate cancer cells choose after months of therapy is “entirely predictable” based on seemingly small, yet important, differences that appear even before treatment begins. The researchers also discovered the reason is not genetics, contrary to beliefs held in the field.
The study outlined the team’s new technology platform that developed a QR code for each of the millions of cells for scientists to find and use later — much like tagging swans in a pond. The QR code directs researchers to a genome-wide molecular makeup of these cells and provides information about how they’ve reacted to cancer treatment.
“We think this work stands to really change how we think about therapy resistance,” said Arjun Raj, co-senior author and Professor in Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania. “Rather than drug-resistant cells coming in just one flavor, we show that even in highly controlled conditions, different ‘flavors’ can emerge, raising the possibility that each of these flavors may need to be treated individually.”
In the study, the lab and collaborators sought to apply synthetic biology tools to answer a key question in cancer research: What makes certain tumors come back a few months or years after therapy? In other words, could the lab understand what causes some rare cells to develop therapeutic resistance to a drug?
“There are many ways cells become different from each other,” said Yogesh Goyal, the co-senior author at Northwestern University. “Our lab asks, how do individual cells make decisions? Understanding this in the context of cancer is all the more exciting because there’s a clinically relevant dichotomy: A cell dies or becomes resistant when faced with therapies.”
Using the interdisciplinary team, the scientists put the before-and-after cloned cells through a whole genome sequencing pipeline to compare the populations and found no systematic underlying genetic mutations to investigate the hypothesis. Raj and Goyal helped develop the QR code framework, FateMap, that could identify each unique cell that seemed to develop resistance to drug therapy. “Fate” refers to whether a cell dies or survives (and if so, how), and the scientists “map” the cells across their lifespan, prior to and following anti-cancer therapy. FateMap is the result of work from several research institutions, and it applies an amalgamation of concepts spanning several disciplines, including synthetic biology, genome engineering, bioinformatics, machine learning and thermodynamics.
“Some are different by chance — just as not all leaves on a tree look the same — but we wanted to determine if that matters,” Goyal said. “The cell biology field has a hard time defining if differences have meaning.”
Researchers at Penn and colleagues have developed a tool to analyze single cells that assesses both the patterns of gene activation within a cell and which sibling cells shared a common progenitor.
Recent advances in analyzing data at the single-cell level have helped biologists make great strides in uncovering new information about cells and their behaviors. One commonly used approach, known as clustering, allows scientists to group cells based on characteristics such as the unique patterns of active or inactive genes or by the progeny of duplicating cells, known as clones, over several generations.
Although single-cell clustering has led to many significant findings, for example, new cancer cell subsets or the way immature stem cells mature into “specialized” cells, researchers to this point had not been able to marry what they knew about gene-activation patterns with what they knew about clone lineages.
Now, research published in Cell Genomics led by University of Pennsylvania professor of bioengineering Arjun Raj has resulted in the development of ClonoCluster, an open-source tool that combines unique patterns of gene activation with clonal information. This produces hybrid cluster data that can quickly identify new cellular traits; that can then be used to better understand resistance to some cancer therapies.
“Before, these were independent modalities, where you would cluster the cells that express the same genes in one lot and cluster the others that share a common ancestor in another,” says Lee Richman, first paper author and a former postdoc in the Raj lab who is now at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “What’s exciting is that this tool allows you to draw new lines around your clusters and explore their properties, which could help us identify new cell types, functions, and molecular pathways.”
Researchers in the Raj Lab use a technique known as barcoding to assign labels to cells they are interested in studying, particularly useful for tracking cells, clustering data based on cells’ offspring, and following lineages over time. Believing they could parse more valuable information out of this data by incorporating the cell’s unique patterns of gene activation, the researchers applied ClonoCluster to six experimental datasets that used barcoding to track dividing cells’ offspring. Specifically, they looked at the development of chemotherapy resistance and of stem cells into specialized tissue types.
Spencer Haws, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the laboratory of Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins, Associate Professor and Dean’s Faculty Fellow in Bioengineering and in Genetics, was awarded a 2022 Druckenmiller Fellowship from the New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute (NYSCF). This prestigious program is the largest dedicated stem cell fellowship program in the world and was developed to train and support young scientists working on groundbreaking research in the field of stem cell research. Haws is one of only five inductees into the 2022 class of fellows.
Haws earned his Ph.D. in Nutritional Sciences in 2021 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied metabolism-chromatin connections under the mentorship of John Denu, Professor in Biomolecular Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a NYSCF – Druckenmiller Fellow in the Cremins Laboratory for Genome Architecture and Spatial Neurobiology, Haws is using this previously developed expertise to frame his investigations into the underlying mechanisms driving the neurodegenerative disorder fragile X syndrome (FXS). “Ultimately, I hope that this work will help guide the development of future FXS-specific therapeutics of which none currently exist,” says Haws.
Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins, Associate Professor and Dean’s Faculty Fellow in Bioengineering and Genetics, has been awarded the 2022 Dr. Susan Lim Award for Outstanding Young Investigator by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), the preeminent, global organization dedicated to stem cells research.
This award recognizes the exceptional achievements of an investigator in the early part of his or her independent career in stem cell research. Cremins works in the field of epigenetics, and is a pioneer in understanding how chromatin, the substance within a chromosome, works:
“Dr. Phillips-Cremins is a gifted researcher with diverse skills across cell, molecular, and computational biology. She is a shining star in the stem cell field who has already made landmark contributions in bringing long-range chromatin folding mechanisms to stem cell research. In addition to her skills as an outstanding researcher,” ISSCR President Melissa Little, Ph.D., said. “She has flourished as an independent investigator, providing the stem cell field with unique and creative approaches that have facilitated conceptual leaps in our understanding of long-range spatial regulation of stem cell fate. Congratulations, Jennifer, on this prestigious honor.”
Cremins was awarded a NIH Director’s Pioneer Award in 2021 and a Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) grant as part of the CZI Collaborative Pairs Pilot Project in 2020. The long-term goal of her lab is to understand the mechanisms by which chromatin architecture governs genome function. The ISSCR will recognize Cremins and her research in a plenary session during the ISSCR annual meeting on June 15.
Yogesh Goyal, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in Genetics and Bioengineering, has been selected as a 2021 STAT Wunderkind, which honors the “next generation of scientific superstars.” Goyal’s research is centered around developing novel mathematical and experimental frameworks to study how a rare subpopulation of cancer cells are able to survive drug therapy and develop resistance, resulting in relapse in patients. In particular, his work provides a view of different paths that single cancer cells take when becoming resistant, at unprecedented resolution and scale. This research aims to help devise novel therapeutic strategies to combat the challenge of drug resistance in cancer.
Goyal is a Jane Coffin Childs Postdoctoral Fellow in the systems biology lab of Arjun Raj, Professor in Bioengineering and Genetics at Penn. He will begin an appointment as Assistant Professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology (CDB) in the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in spring 2022.
Scientific American recently featured two gene therapies that were invented at Penn, including research from Carl June, MD, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies, and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, which led to the FDA approval for the CAR T therapy (sold by Novartis as Kymriah) for treating acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), one of the most common childhood cancers.
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.”
Coevolution is all around us. Think of the elongated blooms that perfectly accommodate a hummingbird’s slender mouth parts. But not all examples of species influencing one another’s evolutionary course accrue benefits to all parties. Tradeoffs are part of the game.
This summer, sophomores Linda Wu of Annandale, Virginia, and Nova Meng of Akron, Ohio, researched an coevolutionary scenario with benefits as well as costs for the species involved. Their work, supported by the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program (PURM) and conducted in the lab of biology professor Corlett Wood, has examined the relationship among plants in the genus Medicago, beneficial bacteria that dwell in their roots, and parasitic nematodes that try to steal the plants’ nutrients.
The Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships provides students in the PURM program awards of $4,500 during the 10-week summer research internship. Wu and Meng stayed busy through those weeks. Whether evaluating plants in a soybean field in Michigan or tending to hundreds—even thousands—of plants in the greenhouse at Penn, these aspiring researchers built a foundation for future scientific endeavors with hands-on practice.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” says Wu. “I’ve always been interested in genetics and evolution and have found parasitic relationships in particular really interesting. I like reading about weird parasites. This summer I’ve gotten to participate in lab meetings, read books about coevolution, and expand my knowledge about the topic.”
Mentored by Ph.D. student McCall Calvert, Wu spent the summer focused on the parasites in the Medicago model system the Wood lab uses. “I’m trying to see if those nematodes are specialists or generalists, if they’re locally adapted to their host plant or open to parasitizing on different species,” Wu says.
To do so, she’s grown pots and pots of plants in the Penn greenhouse, experimentally infecting Medicago plants as well as other species, such as carrot and daisy plants, with nematodes, to measure the degree to which the parasites flourish.
Meng’s project looked at the bacterial side of the coevolutionary relationship. Overseen by lab manager and technician Eunnuri Yi, Meng looked at four strains of bacteria, known as rhizobia. Two strains are nitrogen-fixing, giving their associated plants a crucial nutrient to promote growth, while the other two do not seem to contribute nitrogen to the plants, and instead exist as parasites in the plants’ roots. “I’m looking at what happens when we infect the plants with nematode parasites,” Meng says, “to see if the plants that are open to mutualistic rhizobia are more susceptible to the nematode parasites.”
Linda Wu is a sophomore pursuing an uncoordinated dual degree in business, energy, environment, and sustainability in the Wharton School and in biology with a concentration in ecology and evolution in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.
Nova Meng is a sophomore majoring in bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Penn.
A collaborative study conducted by researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), Penn Engineering and Pennsylvania State University has uncovered new information about how chromosomal material in cell nuclei reorganizes itself after cell division.
While a deep understanding of the cell cycle is a cornerstone of biology and health sciences, research into the complex relationship between three-dimensional chromatin structure and gene transcription is still in its infancy. The results of this study will contribute to a more robust understanding of chromatin rebuilding after mitosis and potentially aid in the treatment of genetic diseases.
Phillips-Cremins’ research uses genetic engineering approaches to discover the mechanisms regulating chromatin organizing principles in cells, as well as computational approaches to investigate cellular function. Her lab’s techniques provide ways of mapping the three-dimensional organization of genes while they are folded together in the genome and how those spatial relationships impact gene expression.
The research team performed their experiments in blood-forming cells from a well-established mouse model. They used sophisticated techniques called high throughput chromosome conformation capture (Hi-C) that detect and map interactions across three-dimensional space between specific sites in chromosomal DNA. These maps also allowed the scientists to measure such interactions at different time points in the cell cycle. In all, the tools detected roughly 2 billion interactions during mitosis and thereafter, when the daughter nuclei are rebuilt.
Members of the Cremins Lab, Daniel J. Emerson, Thomas G. Gilgenast and Katelyn R. Titus, also contributed to the study, which was published in Nature.