2022 Career Award Recipient: Michael Mitchell

by Melissa Pappas

Michael Mitchell (Illustration by Melissa Pappas)

Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering, is one of this year’s recipients of the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award. The award is given to early-career faculty researchers who demonstrate the potential to be role models in their field and invest in the outreach and education of their work.

Mitchell’s award will fund research on techniques for “immunoengineering” macrophages. By providing new instructions to these cells via nanoparticles laden with mRNA and DNA sequences, the immune system could be trained to target and eliminate solid tumors. The award will also support graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in his lab over the next five years.

The project aligns with Mitchell’s larger research goals and the current explosion of interest in therapies that use mRNA, thanks to the technological breakthroughs that enabled the development of COVID-19 vaccines.

“The development of the COVID vaccine using mRNA has opened doors for other cell therapies,” says Mitchell. “The high-priority area of research that we are focusing on is oncological therapies, and there are multiple applications for mRNA engineering in the fight against cancer.”

A new wave of remarkably effective cancer treatments incorporates chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy. There, a patient’s T-cells, a type of white blood cell that fights infections, are genetically engineered to identify, target and kill individual cancer cells that accumulate in the circulatory system.

However, despite CART-T therapy’s success in treating certain blood cancers, the approach is not effective against cancers that form solid tumors. Because T-cells are not able to penetrate tumors’ fibrous barriers, Mitchell and his colleagues have turned to another part of the immune system for help.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Penn Medicine CAR T Therapy Expert Carl June Receives 2022 Keio Medical Science Prize

by Brandon Lausch

The award from Japan’s oldest private university honors outstanding contributions to medicine and life sciences.

Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy Carl June.

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.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

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

Alexander Buffone Appointed Assistant Professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology

Alexander Buffone, Ph.D.

Penn Bioengineering is proud to congratulate Alexander Buffone, Ph.D. on his appointment as Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology. His appointment began in the Spring of 2022.

Buffone got his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from SUNY Buffalo in Buffalo, NY in 2012, working with advisor Sriram Neelamegham, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Buffone completed previous postdoctoral studies at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center with Joseph T.Y. Lau, Distinguished Professor of Oncology in the department of Cellular and Molecular Biology. Upon coming to Penn in 2015, Buffone has worked in the Hammer Lab under advisor Daniel A. Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in Bioengineering and in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, first as a postdoc and later a research associate. Buffone also spent a year as a Visiting Scholar in the Center for Bioengineering and Tissue Regeneration, directed by Valerie M. Weaver, Professor at the University of California, San Francisco in 2019.

While at Penn, Buffone was a co-investigator on an R21 grant through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which supported his time as a research associate. Buffone is excited to start his own laboratory where he plans to train a diverse set of trainees.

Buffone’s research area lies at the intersection of genetic engineering, immunology, and glycobiology and addresses how to specifically tailor the trafficking and response of immune cells to inflammation and various diseases. The work seeks to identify and subsequently modify critical cell surface and intracellular signaling molecules governing the recruitment of various blood cell types to distal sites. The ultimate goal of his research is to tailor and personalize the innate and adaptive immune response to specific diseases on demand.

“None of this would have been possible without the unwavering support of all of my mentors, past and present, and most especially Dan Hammer,” Buffone says. “His support in helping me transition into an independent scientist and his understanding of my outside responsibilities as a dad with two young children is truly the reason why I am standing here today. It’s a testament to Dan as both a person and a mentor.”

Penn Medicine and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Announce Partnership with Costa Rica for CAR T Cell Therapy

Carl June, MD

Carl June, MD, Professor in the Perelman School of Medicine and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, was quoted in a recent press release  announcing a new international partnership between Penn Medicine (PSOM), the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (CHOP), and Costa Rica’s CCSS, or the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (Social Security Program), to develop CAR T research in Costa Rica. June is a world renowned cancer cell therapy pioneer whose research led to the initial development and FDA approval of CAR T cell therapy:

“‘At least 15,000 patients across the world have received CAR T cells, and dozens more clinical trials using this approach are in progress, for almost every major tumor type, but people in many parts of the globe still do not have access to treatment with these transformative therapies,’ said Carl H. June, MD, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. “We are honored to work with our colleagues in Costa Rica in hopes of building a path for patients in underserved areas to have the opportunity to benefit from clinical research programs offering this personalized therapy.’”

Read the the announcement in Penn Medicine News.

 

How Bacteria Store Information to Kill Viruses (But Not Themselves)

by Luis Melecio-Zambrano

A group of bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria, imaged using transmission electron microscopy. New research sheds light on how bacteria fight off these invaders without triggering an autoimmune response. (Image: ZEISS Microscopy, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

During the last few years, CRISPR has grabbed headlines for helping treat patients with conditions as varied as blindness and sickle cell disease. However, long before humans co-opted CRISPR to fight genetic disorders, bacteria were using CRISPR as an immune system to fight off viruses.

In bacteria, CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) works by stealing small pieces of DNA from infecting viruses and storing those chunks in the genes of the bacteria. These chunks of DNA, called spacers, are then copied to form little tags, which attach to proteins that float around until they find a matching piece of DNA. When they find a match, they recognize it as a virus and cut it up.

Now, a paper published in Current Biology by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania Department of Physics and Astronomy shows that the risk of autoimmunity plays a key role in shaping how CRISPR stores viral information, guiding how many spacers bacteria keep in their genes, and how long those spacers are.

Ideally, spacers should only match DNA belonging to the virus, but there is a small statistical chance that the spacer matches another chunk of DNA in the bacteria itself. That could spell death from an autoimmune response.

“The adaptive immune system in vertebrates can produce autoimmune disorders. They’re very serious and dangerous, but people hadn’t really considered that carefully for bacteria,” says Vijay Balasubramanian, principal investigator for the paper and the Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor of Physics in the School of Arts & Sciences.

Balancing this risk can put the bacteria in something of an evolutionary bind. Having more spacers means they can store more information and fend off more types of viruses, but it also increases the likelihood that one of the spacers might match the DNA in the bacteria and trigger an autoimmune response.

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Vijay Balasubramanian is the Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor of Physics at the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Pennsylvania, a visiting professor at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

FDA Approves Penn Pioneered CAR T Cell Therapy for Third Indication

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has expanded its approval for Kymriah, a personalized cellular therapy developed at the Abramson Cancer Center, this time for the treatment of adults with relapsed/refractory follicular lymphoma who have received at least two lines of systemic therapy. “Patients with follicular lymphoma who relapse or don’t respond to treatment have a poor prognosis and may face a series of treatment options without a meaningful, lasting response,” said Stephen J. Schuster, the Robert and Margarita Louis-Dreyfus Professor in Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia and Lymphoma in the Division of Hematology Oncology. It’s the third FDA approval for the “living drug,” which was the first of its kind to be approved, in 2017, and remains the only CAR T cell therapy approved for both adult and pediatric patients.

“In just over a decade, we have moved from treating the very first patients with CAR T cell therapy and seeing them live healthy lives beyond cancer to having three FDA-approved uses of these living drugs which have helped thousands of patients across the globe,” said Carl June, MD, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies in the Abramson Cancer Center and director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Penn. “Today’s news is new fuel for our work to define the future of cell therapy and set new standards in harnessing the immune system to treat cancer.”

Research from June, a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, led to the initial 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.

Read the full announcement in Penn Medicine News.

Penn Engineers Develop a New Method that Could Enable a Patient’s Own Antibodies to Eliminate Their Tumors

Tsourkas
Andrew Tsourkas, Ph.D.

One of the reasons that cancer is notoriously difficult to treat is that it can look very different for each patient. As a result, most targeted therapies only work for a fraction of cancer patients. In many cases, patients will have tumors with no known markers that can be targeted, creating an incredible challenge in identifying effective treatments. A new study seeks to address this problem with the development of a simple methodology to help differentiate tumors from healthy, normal tissues.

This new study, published in Science Advances, was led by Andrew Tsourkas, Professor in Bioengineering and Co-Director of the Center for Targeted Therapeutics and Translational Nanomedicine (CT3N), who had what he describes as a “crazy idea” to use a patient’s antibodies to find and treat their own tumors, taking advantage of the immune system’s innate ability to identify tumors as foreign. This study, spearheaded by Burcin Altun, a former postdoctoral researcher in Tsourkas’s lab, and continued and completed by Fabiana Zappala, a former graduate student in Penn Bioengineering, details their new method for site-specifically labeling “off-the-shelf” and native serum autoantibodies with T cell–redirecting domains.

Researchers have known for some time that cancer patients will generate an antibody response to their own tumors. These anti-tumor antibodies are quite sophisticated in their ability to specifically identify cancer cells; however, they are not sufficiently potent to confer a therapeutic effect. In this study, Tsourkas’s team converted these antibodies into bispecific antibodies, thereby increasing their potency. T cell-redirecting bispecific antibodies are a new form of targeted therapeutic that forms a bridge between tumor cells and T cells which have been found to be as much as a thousand-times more potent than antibodies alone. By combining the specificity of a patient’s own antibodies with the potency of bispecific antibodies, researchers can effectively create a truly personalized therapeutic that is effective against tumors.

In order to test out this new targeted therapeutic approach, the Tsourkas lab had to develop an entirely new technology, allowing them to precisely label antibodies with T cell targeting domains, creating a highly homogeneous product.  Previously it has not been possible to convert native antibodies into bispecific antibodies, but Tsourkas’s Targeted Imaging Therapeutics and Nanomedicine or TITAN lab specializes in the creation of novel targeted imaging and therapeutic agents for detection and treatment of various diseases. “Much is yet to be done before this could be considered a practical clinical approach,” says Tsourkas. “But I hope at the very least this works stimulates new ideas in the way we think about personalized medicine.”

In their next phase, Tsourkas’s team will be working to separate anti-tumor antibodies from other antibodies found in patients’ serum (which could potentially redirect the bispecific antibodies to other locations in the body), as well as examining possible adverse reactions or unintended effects and immunogenicity caused by the treatment. However, this study is just the beginning of a promising new targeted therapeutic approach to cancer treatment.

This work was supported by Emerson Collective and the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute (R01 CA241661).

A New Way to Profile T Cells Can Aid in Personalized Immunotherapy

by Melissa Pappas

A scanning electron micrograph of a healthy human T cell. A better understanding the wide variety of antigen receptors that appear on the surfaces of these critical components of the immune system is necessary for improving a new class of therapies. (Credit: NIAID)

Our bodies are equipped with specialized white blood cells that protect us from foreign invaders, such as viruses and bacteria. These T cells identify threats using antigen receptors, proteins expressed on the surface of individual T cells that recognize specific amino acid sequences found in or on those invaders. Once a T cell’s antigen receptors bind to the corresponding antigen, it can directly kill infected cells or call for backup from the rest of the immune system.

We have hundreds of billions of T cells, each with unique receptors that recognize unique antigens, so profiling this T cell antigen specificity is essential in our understanding of the immune response. It is especially critical in developing targeted immunotherapies, which equip T cells with custom antigen receptors that recognize threats they would otherwise miss, such as the body’s own mutated cancer cells.

Jenny Jiang, Ph.D.

Jenny Jiang, Peter and Geri Skirkanich Associate Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, along with lab members and colleagues at the University of Texas, Austin, recently published a study in Nature Immunology that describes their technology, which simultaneously provides information in four dimensions of T cell profiling. Ke-Yue Ma and Yu-Wan Guo, a former post doc and current graduate student in Jiang’s Penn Engineering lab, respectively, also contributed to this study.

This technology, called TetTCR-SeqHD, is the first to provide such detailed information about single T cells in a high-throughput manner, opening doors for personalized immune diagnostics and immunotherapy development.

There are many pieces of information needed to comprehensively understand the immune response of T cells, and gathering all of these measurements simultaneously has been a challenge in the field. Comprehensive profiling of T cells includes sequencing the antigen receptors, understanding how specific those receptors are in their recognition of invading antigens, and understanding T cell gene and protein expression. Current technologies only screen for one or two of these dimensions due to various constraints.

“Current technologies that measure T cell immune response all have limitations,” says Jiang. “Those that use cultured or engineered T cells cannot tell us about their original phenotype, because once you take a cell out of the body to culture, its gene and protein expression will change. The technologies that address T cell and antigen sequencing with mass spectrometry damage genetic information of the sample. And current technologies that do provide information on antigen specificity use a very expensive binding ligand that can cost more than a thousand dollars per antigen, so it is not feasible if we want to look at hundreds of antigens. There is clearly room for advancement here.”

The TetTCR-SeqHD technology combines Jiang’s previously developed T cell receptor sequencing tool, TetTCR-Seq, described in a Nature Biotechnology paper published in 2018, with the new ability of characterizing both gene and protein expression.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Penn Researchers Show ‘Encrypted’ Peptides Could be Wellspring of Natural Antibiotics

by Melissa Pappas

César de la Fuente, Ph.D.

While biologists and chemists race to develop new antibiotics to combat constantly mutating bacteria, predicted to lead to 10 million deaths by 2050, engineers are approaching the problem through a different lens: finding naturally occurring antibiotics in the human genome.

The billions of base pairs in the genome are essentially one long string of code that contains the instructions for making all of the molecules the body needs. The most basic of these molecules are amino acids, the building blocks for peptides, which in turn combine to form proteins. However, there is still much to learn about how — and where — a particular set of instructions are encoded.

Now, bringing a computer science approach to a life science problem, an interdisciplinary team of Penn researchers have used a carefully designed algorithm to discover a new suite of antimicrobial peptides, hiding deep within this code.

The study, published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, was led by César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, Microbiology, Psychiatry, and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, spanning both Penn Engineering and Penn Medicine, and his postdocs Marcelo Torres and Marcelo Melo. Collaborators Orlando Crescenzi and Eugenio Notomista of the University of Naples Federico II also contributed to this work.

“The human body is a treasure trove of information, a biological dataset. By using the right tools, we can mine for answers to some of the most challenging questions,” says de la Fuente. “We use the word ‘encrypted’ to describe the antimicrobial peptides we found because they are hidden within larger proteins that seem to have no connection to the immune system, the area where we expect to find this function.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Penn Anti-Cancer Engineering Center Will Delve Into the Disease’s Physical Fundamentals

by Evan Lerner

A colorized microscope image of an osteosarcoma shows how cellular fibers can transfer physical force between neighboring nuclei, influencing genes. The Penn Anti-Cancer Engineering Center will study such forces, looking for mechanisms that could lead to new treatments or preventative therapies.

Advances in cell and molecular technologies are revolutionizing the treatment of cancer, with faster detection, targeted therapies and, in some cases, the ability to permanently retrain a patient’s own immune system to destroy malignant cells.

However, there are fundamental forces and associated challenges that determine how cancer grows and spreads. The pathological genes that give rise to tumors are regulated in part by a cell’s microenvironment, meaning that the physical push and pull of neighboring cells play a role alongside the chemical signals passed within and between them.

The Penn Anti-Cancer Engineering Center (PACE) will bring diverse research groups from the School of Engineering and Applied Science together with labs in the School of Arts & Sciences and the Perelman School of Medicine to understand these physical forces, leveraging their insights to develop new types of treatments and preventative therapies.

Supported by a series of grants from the NIH’s National Cancer Institute, the PACE Center is Penn’s new hub within the Physical Sciences in Oncology Network. It will draw upon Penn’s ecosystem of related research, including faculty members from the Abramson Cancer Center, Center for Targeted Therapeutics and Translational Nanomedicine, Center for Soft and Living Matter, Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Institute for Immunology and Center for Genome Integrity.

Dennis Discher and Ravi Radhakrishnan

The Center’s founding members are Dennis Discher, Robert D. Bent Professor with appointments in the Departments of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), Bioengineering (BE) and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM), and Ravi Radhakrishnan, Professor and chair of BE with an appointment in CBE.

Discher, an expert in mechanobiology and in delivery of cells and nanoparticles to solid tumors, and Radhakrishnan, an expert on modeling physical forces that influence binding events, have long collaborated within the Physical Sciences in Oncology Network. This large network of physical scientists and engineers focuses on cancer mechanisms and develops new tools and trainee opportunities shared across the U.S. and around the world.

Lukasz Bugaj, Alex Hughes, Jenny Jiang, Bomyi Lim, Jennifer Lukes and Vivek Shenoy (Clockwise from upper left).

Additional Engineering faculty with growing efforts in the new Center include Lukasz Bugaj, Alex Hughes and Jenny Jiang (BE), Bomyi Lim (CBE), Jennifer Lukes (MEAM) and Vivek Shenoy (Materials Science and Engineering).

Among the PACE Center’s initial research efforts are studies of the genetic and immune mechanisms associated with whether a tumor is solid or liquid and investigations into how physical stresses influence cell signaling.

Originally posted in Penn Engineering Today.