Penn Engineering’s newly established ASSET Center aims to make AI-enabled systems more “safe, explainable and trustworthy” by studying the fundamentals of the artificial neural networks that organize and interpret data to solve problems.
ASSET’s first funding collaboration is with Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) and the Penn Institute for Biomedical Informatics (IBI). Together, they have launched a series of seed grants that will fund research at the intersection of AI and healthcare.
Teams featuring faculty members from Penn Engineering, Penn Medicine and the Wharton School applied for these grants, to be funded annually at $100,000. A committee consisting of faculty from both Penn Engineering and PSOM evaluated 18 applications and judged the proposals based on clinical relevance, AI foundations and potential for impact.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning promise to revolutionize nearly every field, sifting through massive amounts of data to find insights that humans would miss, making faster and more accurate decisions and predictions as a result.
Applying those insights to healthcare could yield life-saving benefits. For example, AI-enabled systems could analyze medical imaging for hard-to-spot tumors, collate multiple streams of disparate patient information for faster diagnoses or more accurately predict the course of disease.
Given the stakes, however, understanding exactly how these technologies arrive at their conclusions is critical. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers won’t use such technologies if they don’t trust that their internal logic is sound.
“We are developing techniques that will allow AI-based decision systems to provide both quantifiable guarantees and explanations of their predictions,” says Rajeev Alur, Zisman Family Professor in Computer and Information Science and Director of the ASSET Center. “Transparency and accuracy are key.”
“Development of explainable and trustworthy AI is critical for adoption in the practice of medicine,” adds Marylyn Ritchie, Professor of Genetics and Director of the Penn Institute for Biomedical Informatics. “We are thrilled about this partnership between ASSET and IBI to fund these innovative and exciting projects.”
Seven projects were selected in the inaugural class, including projects from Dani S. Bassett, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor in the Departments of Bioengineering, Electrical and Systems Engineering, Physics & Astronomy, Neurology, and Psychiatry, and several members of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group: Despina Kontos, Matthew J. Wilson Professor of Research Radiology II, Department of Radiology, Penn Medicine and Lyle Ungar, Professor, Department of Computer and Information Science, Penn Engineering; Spyridon Bakas, Assistant Professor, Departments of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Radiology, Penn Medicine; and Walter R. Witschey, Associate Professor, Department of Radiology, Penn Medicine.
Optimizing clinical monitoring for delivery room resuscitation using novel interpretable AI
Elizabeth Foglia, Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Penn Medicine and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
Dani S. Bassett, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor, Departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, Penn Engineering
This project will apply a novel interpretable machine learning approach, known as the Distributed Information Bottleneck, to solve pressing problems in identifying and displaying critical information during time-sensitive clinical encounters. This project will develop a framework for the optimal integration of information from multiple physiologic measures that are continuously monitored during delivery room resuscitation. The team’s immediate goal is to detect and display key target respiratory parameters during delivery room resuscitation to prevent acute and chronic lung injury for preterm infants. Because this approach is generalizable to any setting in which complex relations between information-rich variables are predictive of health outcomes, the project will lay the groundwork for future applications to other clinical scenarios.
Penn Medicine researchers laud the early results for CAR T therapy in lupus patients, which point to broader horizons for the use of personalized cellular therapies.
Engineered immune cells, known as CAR T cells, have shown the world what personalized immunotherapies can do to fight blood cancers. Now, investigators have reported highly promising early results for CAR T therapy in a small set of patients with the autoimmune disease lupus. Penn Medicine CAR T pioneer Carl June and Daniel Baker, a doctoral student in cell and molecular biology in the Perelman School of Medicine, discuss this development in a commentary published in Cell.
“We’ve always known that in principle, CAR T therapies could have broad applications, and it’s very encouraging to see early evidence that this promise is now being realized,” says June, who is the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Penn Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies at the Abramson Cancer Center.
T cells are among the immune system’s most powerful weapons. They can bind to, and kill, other cells they recognize as valid targets, including virus-infected cells. CAR T cells are T cells that have been redirected, through genetic engineering, to efficiently kill specifically defined cell types.
CAR T therapies are created out of each patient’s own cells—collected from the patient’s blood, and then engineered and multiplied in the lab before being reinfused into the patient as a “living drug.” The first CAR T therapy, Kymriah, was developed by June and his team at Penn Medicine, and received Food & Drug Administration approval in 2017. There are now six FDA-approved CAR T cell therapies in the United States, for six different cancers.
From the start of CAR T research, experts believed that T cells could be engineered to fight many conditions other than B cell cancers. Dozens of research teams around the world, including teams at Penn Medicine and biotech spinoffs who are working to develop effective treatments from Penn-developed personalized cellular therapy constructs, are examining these potential new applications. Researchers say lupus is an obvious choice for CAR T therapy because it too is driven by B cells, and thus experimental CAR T therapies against it can employ existing anti-B-cell designs. B cells are the immune system’s antibody-producing cells, and, in lupus, B cells arise that attack the patient’s own organs and tissues.
Koo shared findings from one of his recent studies conducted in collaboration with Penn Engineering, which showed that a shapeshifting robotic microswarm can brush and floss teeth.
“Routine oral care is cumbersome and can pose challenges for many people, especially those who have a hard time cleaning their teeth” says Koo. “You have to brush your teeth, then floss your teeth, then rinse your mouth; it’s a manual, multistep process. The big innovation here is that the robotics system can do all three in a single, hands-free, automated way.”
The building blocks of these microrobots are iron oxide nanoparticles that have both catalytic and magnetic activity. Using a magnetic field, researchers could direct their motion and configuration to form either bristlelike structures that sweep away dental plaque from the broad surfaces of teeth, or elongated strings that can slip between teeth like a length of floss.
“Nanoparticles can be shaped and controlled with magnetic fields in surprising ways,” says Edward Steager, a senior research investigator at Penn Engineering and co-corresponding author. “We form bristles that can extend, sweep, and even transfer back and forth across a space, much like flossing. The way it works is similar to how a robotic arm might reach out and clean a surface. The system can be programmed to do the nanoparticle assembly and motion control automatically.”
Eight researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine have received research grants designed to invest in high-risk, high-reward projects.
Bushra Raj, Assistant Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in the Perelman School of Medicine and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, was one of three Penn winners of the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award for independent projects developed by early-career investigators. More additional Penn scientists who received NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award for a project focusing on cancer research.
Raj’s project focuses on “testing a novel technology that uses CRISPR/Cas gene-editing tools to genomically record inputs from two signaling pathways in the developing zebrafish brain.”
Established in 2009, the Transformative Research Award promotes cross-cutting, interdisciplinary science and is open to individuals and teams of investigators who propose research that could potentially create or challenge existing paradigms.
Each year, the the Department of Bioengineering seeks exceptional candidates to conduct summer research in bioengineering with the support of two scholarships: the Abraham Noordergraaf Student Summer Bioengineering Research Fund and the Blair Undergraduate Research Fund in the Department of Bioengineering. These scholarships provide a living stipend for students to conduct research on campus in a Penn research lab under the mentorship of a faculty member. The Abraham Noordergraaf Student Summer Bioengineering Research Fund provides financial support for undergraduate or graduate summer research opportunities in bioengineering with a preference for study in the area of cardiovascular systems. Dr. Noordergraaf, who died in 2014, was a founding member and first chair of Penn Bioengineering. The Blair Undergraduate Research Fund in the Department of Bioengineering supports three to five undergraduate research scholars each year with the support of Dr. James C. Blair II. After a competitive round of proposals, the following six scholars were chosen for the Summer 2022 semester. Keep reading below for the research abstracts and bios of the awardees.
The Blair Undergraduate Research Fund in the Department of Bioengineering (Blair Scholars)
Student: Ella Atsavapranee (BE Class of 2023)
PI: Michael J. Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation, Bioengineering
“Lipid nanoparticle-mediated delivery of RAS protease to inhibit cancer cell growth”
Mutations in RAS, a family of proteins found in all human cells, drive a third of cancers, including many pancreatic, colorectal, and lung cancers. However, there are still no therapies that can effectively prevent RAS from causing tumor growth. Recently, a protease was engineered to specifically degrade active RAS, offering a promising new tool for treating these cancers. However, many protein-based therapies still cannot be effectively delivered to patients. Lipid nanoparticles (LNPs), which were used in the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, have emerged as a promising platform for safe and effective delivery of both nucleic acids and proteins. We formulated a library of LNPs using different cationic lipids. We characterized the LNPs by size, charge, and pKa, and tested their ability to deliver fluorescently labeled protease. The LNPs were able to encapsulate and deliver a RAS protease, successfully reducing proliferation of colon cancer cells.
Ella is a senior from Maryland studying bioengineering and chemistry. She works in Dr. Michael Mitchell’s lab, developing lipid nanoparticles to deliver proteins that reduce cancer cell proliferation. She has also conducted research on early-stage cancer detection and therapy monitoring (at Stanford University) and drug delivery across the blood-brain barrier for neurodegenerative diseases (at University of Maryland). She is passionate about translational research, science communication, and promoting diversity in STEM.
Student: Chiadika Eleh (BE and CIS Class of 2024)
PI: Eric J. Brown, Associate Professor of Cancer Biology, Perelman School of Medicine
“Investigating Viability in ATR and WEE1 Inhibitor Treated Ovarian Cancer Cells”
High-grade serous ovarian cancers (HGSOCs) are an aggressive subtype of ovarian cancer, accounting for up to 80% of all ovarian cancer-related deaths. More than half of HGSOCs are homologous recombination deficient; thus, they lack a favorable response when treated with common chemotherapeutic trials. Therefore, new treatment strategies must be developed to increase the life expectancy and quality of life of HGSOC patients. To address the lack of effective treatment options, the Brown Lab is interested in combining ATR and WEE1 inhibition (ATRi/WEE1i) to target HGSOC cells. It has previously been shown that low-dose ATRi/WEE1i is an effective treatment strategy for CCNE1-amplified ovarian cancer-derived PDX tumors (Xu et al., 2021, Cell Reports Medicine). Therefore, the next step is to characterize the HGSOC-specific response to ATRi/WEE1i treatment. This project aims to characterize the viability phenotype of ovarian cancer (OVCAR3) cells in the presence of ATRi/WEE1i in both single and combination treatments. With further research, Eleh hopes to prove the hypothesis low-dose combination ATRi/WEE1i treatment will result in the synergistic loss of viability in OVCAR3 cells. This goal will be achieved through the treatment of OVCAR3 cells with ranging doses of ATRi and Wee1i over 24 and 48 hour time intervals. We hope that this data will help set a treatment baseline that can be used for all OVCAR30-based viability experiments in the future.
Chiadika Eleh is a Bioengineering and Computer Science junior and a member of Penn Engineering’s Rachleff Scholar program. As a Blair Scholar, she worked in Dr. Eric Brown’s cancer biology lab, where she studied cell cycle checkpoint inhibitors as a form of cancer treatment.
“Tbc1d2b regulates vascular formation during development and tissue repair after ischemia”
The mechanisms behind endothelial cells forming blood vessels remains unknown. We have identified Tbc1d2b as a protein that is integral to the regulation of vascular formation. In order to investigate the role of Tbc1d2b in tubule formation, fibrin gel bead assays will be conducted to evaluate how the presence of Tbc1d2b is required for angiogenesis. Fibrin gel bead assays simulate the extracellular matrix environment to support the in vitro development of vessels from human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVEC) coated on cytodex beads. In order to confirm the success of angiogenesis, immunostaining for Phalloidin and CD31 will be conducted. After confirmation that fibrin gel bead assays can produce in vitro tubules, sgRNA CRISPR knockout of Tbc1d2b will be performed on HUVEC cells which will then be used to conduct more fibrin gel bead assays. We hypothesize that HUVEC with the Tbc1d2b knockout phenotype will be unable to form tubules while wild type HUVEC will be able to.
Gloria Lee is a rising senior studying Bioengineering and Physics in the VIPER program from Denver, Colorado. Her research in Dr. Yi Fan’s lab focuses on the role that proteins play in cardiovascular tubule formation.
Abraham Noordergraaf Student Summer Bioengineering Research Fund (Noordergraaf Fellows)
Student: Gary Lin (Master’s in MEAM Class of 2023)
PI: Michelle J. Johnson, Associate Professor in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Perelman School of Medicine, and in Bioengineering
“Development and Integration of Dynamically Modulating Control Systems in the Rehabilitation Using Community-Based Affordable Robotic Exercise System (Rehab CARES)”
As the number of stroke patients requiring rehabilitative care continues to increase, strain is being put onto the US health infrastructure which already has a shortage of rehabilitation practitioners. To help alleviate this pressure, a cost-effective robotic rehabilitative platform was developed to increase access to rehabilitative care. The haptic TheraDrive, a one-degree of freedom actuated hand crank that can apply assistive and resistive forces, was modified to train pronation and supination at the elbow and pinching of the fingers in addition to flexion and extension of the elbow and shoulder. Two controllers were created including an open-loop force controller and a closed-loop proportional-integral (PI) with adaptive control gains based on subject performance in therapy-game tasks as well as galvanic skin response. Stroke subjects (n=11) with a range of cognitive and motor impairment completed 4 therapy games in both adaptive and non-adaptive versions of the controllers (n=8) while measuring force applied on the TheraDrive handle. Resulting normalized average power versus Upper Extremity Fugl-Meyer (UE-FM) and Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA) correlation analyses showed that power was strongly correlated with UE-FM in 2 of the conditions and moderately correlated with the other 6 while MoCA was moderate correlated to 2 of the conditions and weakly correlated to the rest. Mann-Whitney U-tests between adaptive and non-adaptive versions of each therapy game showed no significant differences with regards to power between controller types (p<0.05).
Gary is a master’s student in the School of Engineering studying Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics with a concentration in Robotic and Mechatronic systems. His research primarily focuses on developing affordable rehabilitation robotics for use in assessment and game-based therapies post neural injury. Many of his interests revolve around the design of mechatronic systems and the algorithms used to control them for use in healthcare spaces.
“Optogenetic Control of Developing Kidney Cells for Future Treatment of End-Stage Renal Disease”
This project sought to build from prior research in the Hughes Lab on the geometric and mechanical consequences of kidney form on cell and tissue-scale function. While the developmental trajectory of the kidney is well understood, little is currently known about many factors affecting nephron progenitor differentiation rate. Insufficient differentiation of nephron progenitor cells during kidney formation can result in lower nephron number and glomerular density, which is a risk factor for progression to end-stage renal disease later in life. Prior studies indicated that the amount of nephron differentiation – and thus function of the adult kidney – is correlated to the packing of ureteric tubule tips present at the surface of the kidney. Building off of research conducted in the Bugaj Lab, we found that inserting an optogenetic construct into the genome of human embryonic kidney (HEK) cells allowed us to manipulate the contraction of those cells through exposing them to blue light. Manipulating the contraction of the cells allows for the manipulation of the packing of ureteric tubule tips at the kidney surface. We used a lentiviral vector to transduce HEK293 cells with the optogenetic construct and witnessed visible contraction of the cells when they were exposed to blue light. Future work will include using CRISPR-Cas9 to introduce the optogenetic construct into IPS cells.
Priya is a junior studying bioengineering and had the opportunity to work on manipulating developing kidney cells using an optogenetic construct in the Hughes Lab this summer. She is thrilled to continue this research throughout the coming school year. Outside of the lab, Priya is involved with the PENNaach dance team and the Society of Women Engineers, as well as other mentorship roles.
Student: Cosette Tomita (Master’s in MEAM Class of 2023)
“Expression and Characterization of an Anti-Aβ42 scFv”
Background: Amyloid Beta (Aβ42) fibrils contribute to the pathology of Alzheimer’s Disease. Numerous monoclonal antibodies have been developed against Aβ42. In this study we have designed and expressed a short chain variable fragment specific to Aβ42 (Anti-Aβ42 scFv). To characterize our anti-Aβ42 scFv we have performed structural analysis using transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and binding kinetics using microscale thermophoresis (MST) compared to commercially available antibodies 6E10, Aducanumab, and an IgG isotype control. The goal of this study is to determine if labeling densities and binding constants for Aducanumab and anti-Aβ42 scFv are not significantly different.
Method: To characterize Aβ42 fibril associated antibodies we used negative stain TEM. Aβ42 fibrils were stained on a glow discharged copper grid, and incubated with gold conjugated anti-Aβ42 scFv, 6E10—which binds all Aβ species, aducanumab, or IgG isotype control. Labeling densities were calculated as the number of fibril-associated gold particles per 1 μm2 for each image. Next, we used microscale thermophoresis determine the binding kinetics. Antibodies or anti-Aβ42 scFv were labeled with Alexa Fluor-647 and unlabeled Aβ42 was titrated in a serial dilution over 16 capillaries. The average fluorescence intensity was plotted against the antibody or scFv concentration and the curves were analyzed using the GraphPad Prism software to calculate the dissociation constant (KD) values.
Results: We found a significant difference, tested with a one-way ANOVA (P <0.0001), in gold particle associated Aβ fibrils per 1 μm2 between anti-Aβ42 scFv, 6E10, aducanumab, and IgG isotype control. Further analysis of aducanumab and 6CO3 with unpaired student t-test indicates significant differences in fibril associated gold particles between aducanumab vs. 6E10 (P=0.0003), Aducanumab vs. Isotype control (P <0.0001), anti-Aβ42 scFv vs 6E10 (p=0.0072), and anti-Aβ42 scFv vs Isotype Control (P=0.0029) with no significant difference in labeling densities between Aducanumab and anti-Aβ42 scFv. The expected KD values from MST were 1.8μM for Aducanumab and anti-Aβ42 scFv, 10.3nM for 6E10 and no expected binding for the isotype control. The experimental KD values for anti-Aβ42 scFv and 6E10 are 0.1132μM and 1.467μM respectively. The KD value for Isotype control was undetermined, as expected, however, the KD for Aducanumab was undetermined due to suboptimal assay conditions. Due to confounding variables in the experimental set up such as the use of Aβ1-16 compared to Aβ42 and the use of different fluorophores—5-TAMRA, Alexa Fluor 647 or FITC— the experimental KD values were off by several orders of magnitude.
Conclusion: We have illustrated similar labeling densities between Aducanumab and our anti-Aβ42 scFv. In the future, we will further optimize the MST assay conditions and compare the KD values obtained by MST with other techniques such as surface plasma resonance.
Cosette was born and raised in Chicago land area. Go Sox! She attended University of Missouri where she majored in Chemistry and Biology. She synthesized sigma-2 radiotracers and developed advanced skills in biochemical techniques in Dr. Susan Lever’s lab. After graduation, she moved to NJ to work at Lantheus, a radiopharmaceutical company. She missed academia and the independence of program and project development, so she came to work at the Penn Cyclotron facility before entering the Bioengineering master’s program.
A cross-kingdom partnership between bacteria and fungi can result in the two joining to form a “superorganism” with unusual strength and resilience. It may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but these microbial groupings are very much part of the here and now.
Found in the saliva of toddlers with severe childhood tooth decay, these assemblages can effectively colonize teeth. They were stickier, more resistant to antimicrobials, and more difficult to remove from teeth than either the bacteria or the fungi alone, according to the research team, led by University of PennsylvaniaSchool of Dental Medicine scientists.
What’s more, the assemblages unexpectedly sprout “limbs” that propel them to “walk” and “leap” to quickly spread on the tooth surface, despite each microbe on its own being non-motile, the team reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“This started with a very simple, almost accidental discovery, while looking at saliva samples from toddlers who develop aggressive tooth decay,” says Hyun (Michel) Koo, a professor at Penn Dental Medicine and a co-corresponding author on the paper. “Looking under the microscope, we noticed the bacteria and fungi forming these assemblages and developing motions we never thought they would possess: a ‘walking-like’ and ‘leaping-like’ mobility. They have a lot of what we call ‘emergent functions’ that bring new benefits to this assemblage that they could not achieve on their own. It’s almost like a new organism—a superorganism—with new functions.”
Hyun (Michel) Koo is a professor in the Department of Orthodontics and the divisions of Community Oral Health and Pediatric Dentistry in the School of Dental Medicine, co-founder of the Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry (CiPD) at the University of Pennsylvania, and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.
The award from Japan’s oldest private university honors outstanding contributions to medicine and life sciences.
Carl June,the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, has been named a 2022 Keio Medical Science Prize Laureate. He is recognized for his pioneering role in the development of CAR T cell therapy for cancer, which uses modified versions of patients’ own immune cells to attack their cancer.
The Keio Medical Science Prize is an annual award endowed by Keio University, Japan’s oldest private university, which recognizes researchers who have made an outstanding contribution to the fields of medicine or the life sciences. It is the only prize of its kind awarded by a Japanese university, and eight laureates of this prize have later won the Nobel Prize. Now in its 27th year, the prize encourages the expansion of researcher networks throughout the world and contributes to the well-being of humankind.
“Dr. June exemplifies the spirit of curiosity and fortitude that make Penn home to so many ‘firsts’ in science and medicine,” said Penn President Liz Magill. “His work provides hope to cancer patients and their families across the world, and inspiration to our global community of physicians and scientists who are working to develop the next generation of treatments and cures for diseases of all kinds.”
With its irregularities and anatomical complexities, the root canal system is one of the most clinically challenging spaces in the oral cavity. As a result, biofilm not fully cleared from the nooks and crannies of the canals remains a leading cause of treatment failure and persistent endodontic infections, and there are limited means to diagnose or assess the efficacy of disinfection. One day, clinicians may have a new tool to overcome these challenges in the form of microrobots.
In a proof-of-concept study, researchers from Penn Dental Medicine and its Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry (CiPD), have shown that microrobots can access the difficult to reach surfaces of the root canal with controlled precision, treating and disrupting biofilms and even retrieving samples for diagnostics, enabling a more personalized treatment plan. The Penn team shared their findings on the use of two different microrobotic platforms for endodontic therapy in the August issue of the Journal of Dental Research;the work was selected for the issue’s cover.
“The technology could enable multimodal functionalities to achieve controlled, precision targeting of biofilms in hard-to-reach spaces, obtain microbiological samples, and perform targeted drug delivery, ” says Dr. Alaa Babeer, lead author of the study and a Penn Dental Medicine Doctor of Science in Dentistry (DScD) and endodontics graduate, who is now within the lab of Dr. Michel Koo, co-director of the CiPD .
In both platforms, the building blocks for the microrobots are iron oxide nanoparticles (NPs) that have both catalytic and magnetic activity and have been FDA approved for other uses. In the first platform, a magnetic field is used to concentrate the NPs in aggregated microswarms and magnetically control them to the apical area of the tooth to disrupt and retrieve biofilms through a catalytic reaction. The second platform uses 3D printing to create miniaturized helix-shaped robots embedded with iron oxide NPs. These helicoids are guided by magnetic fields to move within the root canal, transporting bioactives or drugs that can be released on site.
“This technology offers the potential to advance clinical care on a variety of levels,” says Dr. Koo, co-corresponding author of the study with Dr. Edward Steager, a senior research investigator in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “One important aspect is the ability to have diagnostic as well as therapeutic applications. In the microswarm platform, we can not only remove the biofilm, but also retrieve it, enabling us identify what microorganisms caused the infection. In addition, the ability to conform to the narrow and difficult-to-reach spaces within the root canal allows for a more effective disinfection in comparison to the files and instrumentation techniques presently used.”
Michel Koo is a professor in the Department of Orthodontics and divisions of Community Oral Health and Pediatric Dentistry in Penn Dental Medicine and co-director of the Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry. He is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.
A study published in Nature Biomedical Engineering details a novel method for imaging the placenta in pregnant patients as well as the results of a pilot clinical study. By combining optical measurements with ultrasound, the findings show how oxygen levels can be monitored noninvasively and provides a new way to generate a better understanding of this complex, crucial organ. This research was the result of a collaboration of the groups of the University of Pennsylvania’s Arjun Yodh and Nadav Schwartz with colleagues from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and was led by postdoc Lin Wang.
Schwartz describes the placenta as the “engine” of pregnancy, an organ that plays a crucial role in delivering nutrients and oxygen to the fetus. Placental dysfunction can lead to complications such as fetal growth restriction, preeclampsia, and stillbirth. To increase knowledge about this crucial organ, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development launched the Human Placenta Project in 2014. One focus of the program is to develop tools to assess human placental structure and function in real time, including optical devices.
For three years, the researchers optimized the design of their instrument and tested it in preclinical settings. The process involved integrating optical fibers with ultrasound probes, exploring various ultrasound transducers, and improving the multimodal technology so that measurements were stable, accurate, and reproducible while collecting data at the bedside. The resulting instrumentation now enables researchers to study the anatomy of the placenta while also collecting detailed functional information about placenta blood flow and oxygenation, capabilities that existing commercially devices do not have, the researchers say.
Because the placenta is located far below the body’s surface, one of the key technical challenges addressed by Wang, a postdoc in Yodh’s lab, was reducing background noise in the opto-electronic system. Light is scattered and absorbed when it travels through thick tissues, Yodh says, and the key for success was to reduce background interference so that the small amount of light that penetrates deep into the placenta and then returns is still large enough for a high-quality measurement.
“We’re sending a light signal that goes through the same deep tissues as the ultrasound. The extremely small amount of light that returns to the surface probe is then used to accurately assess tissue properties, which is only possible with very stable lasers, optics, and detectors,” says Yodh. “Lin had to overcome many barriers to improve the signal-to-noise ratio to the point where we trusted our data.”
The authors are Lin Wang, Jeffrey M. Cochran, Kenneth Abramson, Lian He, Venki Kavuri, Samuel Parry, Arjun G. Yodh, and Nadav Schwartz from Penn; Tiffany Ko, Wesley B. Baker, and Rebecca L. Linn from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and David R. Busch, previously a research associate at Penn and now at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School.
A shapeshifting robotic microswarm may one day act as a toothbrush, rinse, and dental floss in one.
The technology, developed by a multidisciplinary team at the University of Pennsylvania, is poised to offer a new and automated way to perform the mundane but critical daily tasks of brushing and flossing. It’s a system that could be particularly valuable for those who lack the manual dexterity to clean their teeth effectively themselves.
The building blocks of these microrobots are iron oxide nanoparticles that have both catalytic and magnetic activity. Using a magnetic field, researchers could direct their motion and configuration to form either bristlelike structures that sweep away dental plaque from the broad surfaces of teeth, or elongated strings that can slip between teeth like a length of floss. In both instances, a catalytic reaction drives the nanoparticles to produce antimicrobials that kill harmful oral bacteria on site.
Experiments using this system on mock and real human teeth showed that the robotic assemblies can conform to a variety of shapes to nearly eliminate the sticky biofilms that lead to cavities and gum disease. The Penn team shared their findings establishing a proof-of-concept for the robotic system in the journal ACS Nano.
“Routine oral care is cumbersome and can pose challenges for many people, especially those who have hard time cleaning their teeth” says Hyun (Michel) Koo, a professor in the Department of Orthodontics and divisions of Community Oral Health and Pediatric Dentistry in Penn’s School of Dental Medicine and co-corresponding author on the study. “You have to brush your teeth, then floss your teeth, then rinse your mouth; it’s a manual, multistep process. The big innovation here is that the robotics system can do all three in a single, hands-free, automated way.”
Hyun (Michel) Koo is a professor in the Department of Orthodontics and divisions of Community Oral Health and Pediatric Dentistry in the School of Dental Medicine, co-director of the Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry, and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group at the University of Pennsylvania.
Edward Steager is a senior research investigator in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Koo and Steager’s coauthors on the paper are Penn Dental Medicine’s Min Jun Oh, Alaa Babeer, Yuan Liu, and Zhi Ren and Penn Engineering’s Jingyu Wu, David A. Issadore, Kathleen J. Stebe, and Daeyeon Lee.
This work was supported in part by the National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research (grants DE025848 and DE029985), Procter & Gamble, and the Postdoctoral Research Program of Sungkyunkwan University.