Congratulations to two Bioengineering graduate students who were awarded Student Travel Achievement Recognition (STAR) Awards from the Society for Biomaterials (SFB). The STAR Award recognizes research excellence and develops future leaders within SFB and comes with a certificate and a monetary award of $250. Penn Bioengineering graduate students Rebecca Haley and Alex Hamilton, both members of the lab of Michael J. Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, received their awards and presented on their research in the SFB annual meeting in April 2023.
Rebecca Haley is a Ph.D. student in Bioengineering and a NSF Graduate Research Fellow. In the Mitchell Lab, she focuses on the use of ionizable lipid nanoparticles for the delivery of protein cargos. Supported by this STAR award, she presented her work delivering small protein RAS-inhibitors that reduce cancer cell proliferation. Rebecca is interested in expanding the applications of lipid nanoparticle technology, allowing currently limited therapeutics to achieve functional delivery and, hopefully, clinical success.
Alex Hamilton is a Ph.D. student in Bioengineering and an NSF Graduate Research Fellow. Alex’s work in the Mitchell lab focuses on non-viral nucleic acid delivery. His research interests include cancer immunotherapy, vaccines, and fetal-maternal medicine. He is currently engaged in using novel high-throughput screening techniques to accelerate the discovery process for lipid nanoparticle development for a variety of disease applications.
Two more Mitchell Lab members were likewise recognized with honorable mention inn the STAR Awards: Hannah Safford, a Ph.D. student in Bioengineering and NSF Fellow, and Rohan Palanki, a M.D.-Ph.D. student in Bioengineering and NIH Fellow
Learn more about the Mitchell Lab’s research in biomaterials science, drug delivery, and cellular and molecular bioengineering in the lab’s website.
Read more stories featuring Mitchell and his team here.
Ten winners of the 2023 Penn Prize for Excellence in Teaching by Graduate Students were announced at a ceremony held April 13 at the Graduate Student Center. The recipients, who represented five of Penn’s 12 schools, were recognized among a pool of 44 Ph.D. candidates and master’s students nominated primarily by undergraduates—a quality unique to and cherished about this Prize.
“It’s a particularly authentic expression of gratitude from undergraduates, and that’s really the pleasure [of presenting these awards],” says Vice Provost for Education Karen Detlefsen, who was present to announce the winners and award them with a certificate. (They also receive a monetary award.) “I’m so proud of our students: Our undergraduates, for taking the time to recognize what it is our graduate students contribute to the student body, and the graduate students who are contributing to the life of the University.
“Students are the lifeblood of the University and without them, we wouldn’t be here.”
The Prize began in the 1999-2000 academic year under former Penn President Judith Rodin. It was spearheaded by then-doctoral-candidate Eric Eisenstein and has been issued every year since. Nominations for the Prize often mention how graduate teaching assistants were able to take a complex subject and make it relatable or craft a course like philosophy or mathematics into an enjoyable—even highly anticipated—experience for students.
“Many nominations show how much students value a TA or a graduate instructor of record who shows that they care for their learning and for them as people, and who makes themself readily available to assist,” says Ian Petrie, director of graduate student programming for the Center for Teaching and Learning, who organizes the selection committee for the Prize. “Typically, however, committee members are also interested in seeing nominations that really point to how a graduate student instructor taught or gave feedback—not just how responsive they were to emails or how many office hours they had.”
He also emphasizes that many winners this year were not just teachers, but mentors—often helping undergraduates or new graduate students navigate not only the course but also Penn as an institution.
Guruprasad studies mechanisms of resistance to chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy for cancer. He has served as a teaching assistant for five semesters: three for Intro to Biotransport Processes (BE 3500) taught by Alex Hughes, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, and two for Cellular Engineering (BE 3060), taught by Daniel Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in Bioengineering and in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Both courses are a part of the core curriculum for undergraduate bioengineering students. His doctoral thesis focuses on how a specific interaction between CAR T cells and tumor cells limits their function across a range of cancers.
“I make myself approachable outside the classroom, and I think that’s one aspect of being a TA: having responsibilities that extend beyond the classroom,” says Guruprasad. “Dozens of times, I’ve spoken to students over coffee, or over some lunch, about what direction they want to take in their life, what they want to do outside of the course, and give them my two cents of advice. I try to individualize.”
This post was adapted from an original story by Brandon Baker in Penn Today. Read the full story and list of 2023 winners here.
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.
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
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.
“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.”
Savan Patel, a fourth year Penn Bioengineering student, is one of 42 finalists competing for a 2023 Hertz Fellowship in applied science, mathematics, and engineering, one of the most prestigious Ph.D. fellowships in the United States. Chosen annually, the Hertz Fellowship is awarded to the nation’s most promising graduate students in science and technology.
“Since 1963, the Hertz Foundation has granted fellowships empowering the nation’s most promising young minds in science and technology. Hertz Fellows receive five years of funding valued at up to $250,000, which offers flexibility from the traditional constraints of graduate training and the independence needed to pursue research that best advances our security and economic vitality […]
Over the foundation’s 60-year history of awarding fellowships, more than 1200 Hertz Fellows have established a remarkable track record of accomplishments. Their ranks include two Nobel laureates; recipients of 10 Breakthrough Prizes and three MacArthur Foundation “genius awards”; and winners of the Turing Award, the Fields Medal, the National Medal of Technology, and the National Medal of Science. In addition, 50 are members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, and 34 are fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Hertz Fellows hold over 3,000 patents, have founded more than 375 companies and have created hundreds of thousands of science and technology jobs.”
Patel is studying Bioengineering and Finance in the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology (M&T), an interdisciplinary dual degree program coordinated by Penn Engineering and the Wharton School of Business. He is currently a member of the lab of Michael J. Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering. Patel’s research interests lie at the interface of drug delivery and immunoengineering. His current project involves the use of modified cholesterol molecules to induce shifts in the biodistribution of ionizable lipid nanoparticles (LNPs). Following graduation, he intends to pursue a Ph.D. in bioengineering in which hopes to develop translatable immunotherapies and drug delivery platforms.
If chosen, the Hertz Fellowship will fund Patel’s graduate studies. Selected from over 750 applicants, Patel is one of fifteen undergraduates and one of two bioengineering students to make the final round of interviews. After a culminating round of interviews, the 2023 Class of Hertz Fellows will be announced in May.
Learn more about the Hertz Fellowship and read the full list of finalists here.
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.
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.
Engineers in the Center for Precision Engineering for Health (CPE4H) are focusing on innovations in diagnostics and delivery, cellular and tissue engineering, and the development of new devices that integrate novel materials with human tissues. Below is an excerpt from “Going Small to Win Big: Engineering Personalized Medicine,” featuring the research from the laboratory of Jenny Jiang, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Associate Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering.
In order to create personalized immune therapies, researchers need to untangle what is happening between an individual patient’s immune cells and the antigens that they interact with on a molecular level. Immune cell-antigen interactions need to be understood in four different areas in order to create a full picture: the unique genetic sequence of the T cell’s antigen receptors, the antigen specificity of that cell, and both the gene and protein expression of the same cell.
The Status Quo
Prior methods of understanding interactions between T cells and antigens could only get a picture of one or two of these four elements because of technology constraints. Other roadblocks included that cells cultured or engineered in a laboratory setting are not in a natural environment so they won’t express genes or proteins in the way T cells would in the body, and technologies that assess the antigen specificity of T cells were not cost-effective for looking at large numbers of antigens.
The Jiang Lab’s Fix
The lab of Jenny Jiang, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Associate Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, developed a technology called TetTCR-SeqHD, which solves these problems. Using this technology, scientists can now simultaneously profile samples of large numbers of single T cells in the four dimensions using high- throughput screening.
The Jiang Lab’s technology is essentially a method for getting a “full-body scan” of an individual’s T cells and creates a catalog of the different types of T cells and the antigens they respond (or don’t respond) to, paving the way for the ability to better target immune therapies to an individual patient.
“Individual T cells are unique, and that’s the challenge of using one treatment to fit all,” says Jiang. “Identifying antigen specificity and creating therapies that target that specificity in an individual’s T cells will be key to truly personalizing immune therapies in the future.”
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.
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.
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.”