Penn Bioengineering Graduate Student on T Cell Therapy Improvements

Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine News

 Neil Sheppard,  Adjunct Associate Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine, and David Mai, a Bioengineering graduate student in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, explained the findings of their recent study, which offered a potential strategy to improve T cell therapy in solid tumors, to the European biotech news website Labiotech.

Mai is a graduate student in the lab of Carl H. June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in Penn Medicine, Director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies (CCI) at the Abramson Cancer Center, and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Read “Immunotherapy in the fight against solid tumors” in Labiotech.

Read more about this collaborative study here.

The Potential Futures of Neurotech

Roy Hoshi Hamilton, MD, MS, FAAN, FANA

Brain technology offers all kinds of exciting possibilities — from treating conditions like epilepsy or depression, to simply maximizing brain health. But medical ethicists are concerned about potential dangers and privacy concerns. Roy Hamilton, Professor of Neurology in the Perelman School of Medicine,  Director of the Penn Brain Science, Translation, Innovation, and Modulation (BrainSTIM) Center, and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, spoke with WHYY about how brain stimulation is being used.

Listen to “Neurotech and the Growing Battle for Our Brains

Two from Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group Elected to the National Academy of Sciences

Four faculty from the University of Pennsylvania have been elected to the United States National Academy of Sciences (NAS). They are David Brainard of the School of Arts & Sciences; Duncan Watts of the Annenberg School of Communication, School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Wharton School; and Susan R. Weiss and Kenneth S. Zaret of the Perelman School of Medicine.

They join 120 members and 23 international members elected by their peers this year to NAS. Recognized for “distinguished and continuing achievements in original research,” this new class brings the total number of active members to 2,565 and of international members to 526.

Brainard and Zaret are members of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

David Brainard is the RRL Professor of Psychology, director of the Vision Research Center, and associate dean for the natural sciences in the School of Arts & Sciences. His research focuses on human vision, using both experiments and computer modeling of visual processing, to understand how the visual system deciphers information about objects from light entering the eye. Specifically, he and his lab are interested in color vision, conducting psychophysical experiments to investigate how the appearance of color is affected by an object’s surface properties and ambient light, and how color perception aids in identifying objects. Brainard is the recipient of many honors, including the Macbeth Award from the Inter-Society Color Council, Stein Innovation Award from Research to Prevent Blindness, and Edgard D. Tillyer Award from Optica. He is an elected member of the Society of Experimental Psychologists, a Silver Fellow of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, and a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science.

Kenneth Zaret

Kenneth S. Zaret is the Joseph Leidy Professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at the Perelman School of Medicine, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and a member of the Cell and Molecular Biology Graduate Program. His research focuses on gene regulation, cell differentiation, and chromatin structure, with a goal of elucidating these phenomena in the context of embryonic development and tissue regeneration. Pinpointing these aspects of development at the cellular level can serve as the basis for developing future therapeutics and experimental models that further scientists’ ability to understand and cure disease. Zaret has been the recipient of many honors, including a MERIT Award from the National Institutes of Health, the Stanley N. Cohen Biomedical Research Award, and election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Read the full announcement in Penn Today.

CiPD Fellows Recognized with Research Awards

Members of the inaugural cohort of fellows in the Center for Innovation and Precision Dentistry (CiPD)’s NIDCR T90/R90 Postdoctoral Training Program have been recognized for their research activities with fellows receiving awards from the American Association for Dental, Oral, and Craniofacial Research (AADOCR), the Society for Biomaterials, and the Osteology Foundation. All four of the honored postdocs are affiliated with Penn Bioengineering.

Zhi Ren

Zhi Ren won first place in the Fives-Taylor Award at the AADOCR Mini Symposium for Young Investigators. A postdoctoral fellow in the labs of Dr. Hyun (Michel) Koo at Penn Dental Medicine (and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group) and Dr. Kathleen Stebe of Penn Engineering, Dr. Ren’s research focuses on understanding how bacterial and fungal pathogens interact in the oral cavity to form a sticky plaque biofilm on teeth, which gives rise to severe childhood tooth decay that affects millions of children worldwide. In his award-winning study, titled “Interkingdom Assemblages in Saliva Display Group-Level Migratory Surface Mobility”, Dr. Ren discovered that bacteria and fungi naturally present in the saliva of toddlers with severe decay can form superorganisms able to move and rapidly spread on tooth surfaces.

Justin Burrell

Justin Burrell won second place in the AADOCR Hatton Competition postdoctoral category for his research. Dr. Burrell has been working with Dr. Anh Le in Penn Dental Medicine’s Department of Oral Surgery/Pharmacology and Dr. D. Kacy Cullen of Penn Medicine and Penn Bioengineering. Together, their interdisciplinary team of clinician-scientists, biologists, and neuroengineers have been developing novel therapies to expedite facial nerve regeneration and increase meaningful functional recovery.

Marshall Padilla

Marshall Padilla earned third place at the Society for Biomaterials Postdoctoral Recognition Award Competition for a project titled, “Branched lipid architecture improves lipid-nanoparticle-based mRNA delivery to the liver via enhanced endosomal escape”. Padilla was also a finalist in the AADOCR Hatton Award Competition, presenting on a separate project titled, “Lipid Nanoparticle Optimization for mRNA-based Oral Cancer Therapy”. Both projects employ lipid nanoparticles, the same delivery vehicles used in the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine technology. A postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Michael J. Mitchell of Penn’s Department of Bioengineering, Dr. Padilla’s research focuses on developing new ways to enhance the efficacy and safety of lipid nanoparticle technology and its applications in dentistry and biomedicine. He has been working in collaboration with Dr. Shuying (Sheri) Yang and Dr. Anh Le in Penn Dental Medicine.

Dennis Sourvanos

Dennis Sourvanos (GD’23, DScD’23) was the recipient of the Trainee Travel Grant award through the Osteology Foundation (Lucerne Switzerland). Dr. Sourvanos will be presenting his research related to medical dosimetry and tissue regeneration at the International Osteology Symposium in Barcelona, Spain (April 27th – 29th 2023). He also presented at the 2023 AADOCR/CADR Annual Meeting for his project titled, “Validating Head-and-Neck Human-Tissue Optical Properties for Photobiomodulation and Photodynamic Therapies.” Dr. Sourvanos has been working with Dr. Joseph Fiorellini in Penn Dental Medicine’s Department of Periodontics and Dr. Timothy Zhu in the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Radiation Oncology and the Smilow Center for Translational Research (and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group).

Read the full announcement in Penn Dental Medicine News.

Michael Mitchell and Kyle Vining Win IDEA Prize from CiPD and Penn Health-Tech

Michael J. Mitchell
Kyle Vining

 Michael J. Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, and Kyle Vining, Assistant Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and in Penn Dental Medicine and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, have been awarded the second-annual IDEA (Innovation in Dental Medicine and Engineering to Advance Oral Health) Prize, issued by the Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry (CiPD) and Penn Health-Tech.

“Through their collaborative research, they are aiming to develop next-generation treatments for dental caries (tooth-decay) using lipid nanoparticles, the same delivery vehicles employed in the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine technology.

‘This project shows the type of innovative ideas and collaborations that we are kickstarting through the IDEA prize,’ says Dr. Michel Koo, co-director of the CiPD and Professor at Penn Dental Medicine. ‘This is a great example of synergistic interaction at the interface of engineering and oral health’ adds Dr. Kate Stebe, co-director of the CiPD and Professor at Penn Engineering.”

Read the full announcement in Penn Dental Medicine News.

Study Reveals New Insights on Brain Development Sequence Through Adolescence

by Eric Horvath

3D illustration of a human brain
Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine News

Brain development does not occur uniformly across the brain, but follows a newly identified developmental sequence, according to a new Penn Medicine study. Brain regions that support cognitive, social, and emotional functions appear to remain malleable—or capable of changing, adapting, and remodeling—longer than other brain regions, rendering youth sensitive to socioeconomic environments through adolescence. The findings are published in Nature Neuroscience.

Researchers charted how developmental processes unfold across the human brain from the ages of 8 to 23 years old through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The findings indicate a new approach to understanding the order in which individual brain regions show reductions in plasticity during development.

Brain plasticity refers to the capacity for neural circuits—connections and pathways in the brain for thought, emotion, and movement—to change or reorganize in response to internal biological signals or the external environment. While it is generally understood that children have higher brain plasticity than adults, this study provides new insights into where and when reductions in plasticity occur in the brain throughout childhood and adolescence.

The findings reveal that reductions in brain plasticity occur earliest in “sensory-motor” regions, such as visual and auditory regions, and occur later in “associative” regions, such as those involved in higher-order thinking (problem solving and social learning). As a result, brain regions that support executive, social, and emotional functions appear to be particularly malleable and responsive to the environment during early adolescence, as plasticity occurs later in development.

“Studying brain development in the living human brain is challenging. A lot of neuroscientists’ understanding about brain plasticity during development actually comes from studies conducted with rodents. But rodent brains do not have many of what we refer to as the association regions of the human brain, so we know less about how these important areas develop,” says corresponding author Theodore D. Satterthwaite, the McLure Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine, and director of the Penn Lifespan Informatics and Neuroimaging Center (PennLINC).

Read the full story in Penn Medicine News.

N.B.: Theodore Satterthwaite in a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Daeyeon Lee: Evan C Thompson Lecture and American Chemical Society Award

 Daeyeon Lee, Professor and Evan C Thompson Term Chair for Excellence in Teaching in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, is the recipient of two recent honors.

Surrounded by his supportive research team, fellow faculty, students, School of Engineering and Applied Science Dean Vijay Kumar, and Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein, Lee recently delivered the 2023 Evan C Thompson Chair Lecture about—fittingly enough—establishing a sense of community as we return from the isolating days of the pandemic.

Daeyeon Lee of the School of Engineering and Applied Science delivers the 2023 Thompson Chair Lecture on April 4, 2023. He spoke about reconnecting in the classroom and building community.

“Students who feel connected with instructors and among peers will invest more time, work harder, and retain information better, because they feel comfortable and safe being in the classroom and making space,” Lee said in his opening remarks. “So, there are clearly lots of positive benefits to having this connectedness among students in the classroom.”

Lee’s lecture, titled “(Re)connecting in the Classroom,” was inspired by the “Great Disengagement” referenced in an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education last year. It portrayed students as more disconnected and uncertain as they re-entered the campus environment.

Read more about Lee’s “(Re)connecting in the Classroom” in Penn Today.

In addition, Lee has received the 2022 Outstanding Achievement Award in Nanoscience from the American Chemical Society (ACS).

The annual award recognizes exceptional achievements in nanoscience research and notable leadership in the area of colloidal nanoparticles and application. Lee was chosen from a large group of extraordinary nominees among the invited speakers, “for pioneering research in development of factory-on-a-chip and its application for large scale nanoparticle synthesis and functionalization.”

Read more about this award in Penn Engineering Today.

Carl H. June, MD, FAACR, Honored with 2023 AACR Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research

Carl June, MD

 The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), the largest cancer research organization in the country and based in Philadelphia, will bestow its 2023 Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research to Carl June, Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Penn Medicine. June is also Director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies, Director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. He is recognized for his groundbreaking work in developing the first gene-editing cell therapy for cancer and for his pioneering work with CAR T cell therapy.

Read the press release on the AACR website.

The Big Bang at 75

by Kristina García

A child stops by an image of the cosmic microwave background at Shanghai Astronomy Museum in Shanghai, China on July 18, 2021. (Image: FeatureChina via AP Images)
A girl stops by an image of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) at Shanghai Astrology Museum in Shanghai, China Sunday, Jul. 18, 2021. The planetarium, with a total floor space of 38,000 square meters and claimed to be the world’s largest, opens to visitors from July 18. (FeatureChina via AP Images)

There was a time before time when the universe was tiny, dense, and hot. In this world, time didn’t even exist. Space didn’t exist. That’s what current theories about the Big Bang posit, says Vijay Balasubramanian, the Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor of Physics. But what does this mean? What did the beginning of the universe look like? “I don’t know, maybe there was a timeless, spaceless soup,” Balasubramanian says. When we try to describe the beginning of everything, “our words fail us,” he says.

Yet, for thousands of years, humans have been trying to do just that. One attempt came 75 years ago from physicists George Gamow and Ralph Alpher. In a paper published on April 1, 1948, Alpher and Gamow imagined the universe starts in a hot, dense state that cools as it expands. After some time, they argued, there should have been a gas of neutrons, protons, electrons, and neutrinos reacting with each other and congealing into atomic nuclei as the universe aged and cooled. As the universe changed, so did the rates of decay and the ratios of protons to neutrons. Alpher and Gamow were able to mathematically calculate how this process might have occurred.

Now known as the alpha-beta-gamma theory, the paper predicted the surprisingly large fraction of helium and hydrogen in the universe. (By weight, hydrogen comprises 74% of nuclear matter, helium 24%, and heavier elements less than 1%.)

The findings of Gamow and Alpher hold up today, Balasubramanian says, part of an increasingly complex picture of matter, time and space. Penn Today spoke with Balasubramanian about the paper, the Big Bang, and the origin of the universe.

Read the full Q&A in Penn Today.

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

A Potential Strategy to Improve T Cell Therapy in Solid Tumors

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

Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine News

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.

CAR T cell therapy was pioneered at Penn Medicine by Carl H. June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy at Penn and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies (CCI) at Abramson Cancer Center, whose work led to the first approved CAR T cell therapy for B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2017. Since then, personalized cellular therapies have revolutionized blood cancer treatment, but remained stubbornly ineffective against solid tumors, such as lung cancer and breast cancer.

“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.”

Read the full story in Penn Medicine News.

June is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. Read more stories featuring June’s research here.