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.

Student Summer Research Spotlight: Dahin Song

Dahin Song
Dahin Song (BE 2024)

Dahin Song, a third year undergraduate student in Bioengineering, penned a guest blog post for Penn Career Services as part of their ongoing series of posts by recipients of the 2022 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. In this post, Song talks about her opportunity to conduct research in the SMART Lab of 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. During her summer research, Song worked on increasing the stability of the monolayer in microbubbles, gas particles which have been put to therapeutic use. She writes:

“My project was on increasing the stability of the monolayer using cholesterol; theoretically, this would decrease the permeability while maintaining the fluidity of the monolayer. Being given my own project at the get-go was initially intimidating; initial learning curve was overwhelming – along with new wet lab techniques and protocols, I learned a whole new topic well enough to ask meaningful questions. But in retrospect, throwing myself headlong into a project was the best method to immerse me in the research environment, especially as a first-time researcher. I learned how to read papers efficiently, troubleshoot research problems, navigate in a laboratory environment, and be comfortable with working independently but more importantly, with others.”

Read “The Itsy Bitsy Bubble” in the Career Services blog.

Carl June and Avery Posey Lead the Way in CAR T Cell Therapy

Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) professors and Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group members Carl June and Avery Posey are leading the charge in T cell therapy and the fight against cancer.

Avery Posey, PhD
Carl June, MD

Advances in genome editing through processes such as CRISPR, and the ability to rewire cells through synthetic biology, have led to increasingly elaborate approaches for modifying and supercharging T cells for therapy. Avery Posey,  Assistant Professor of Pharmacology, and Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy, explain how new techniques are providing tools to counter some of the limitations of current CAR T cell therapies in a recent Nature feature.

The pair were also part of a team of researchers from PSOM, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), and the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center to receive an inaugural $8 million Therapy ACceleration To Intercept CAncer Lethality (TACTICAL) Award from the Prostate Cancer Foundation. Their project will develop new clinic-ready CAR T cell therapies for Metastatic Castrate-Resistant Prostate Cancer (mCRPC).

Read “The race to supercharge cancer-fighting T cells” in Nature.

Read about the TACTICAL Award in the December 2022 Awards & Accolades section of Penn Medicine News.

ASSET Center Inaugural Seed Grants Will Fund Trustworthy AI Research in Healthcare

by

Illustration credit: Melissa Pappas

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.

Read the full list of projects and abstracts in Penn Engineering Today.

CAR T Cell Therapy Reaches Beyond Cancer

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.

Penn Medicine’s Carl June and Daniel Baker.

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.

This story is by Meagan Raeke. Read more at Penn Medicine News.

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