Spencer Haws, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the laboratory of Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins, Associate Professor and Dean’s Faculty Fellow in Bioengineering and in Genetics, was awarded a 2022 Druckenmiller Fellowship from the New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute (NYSCF). This prestigious program is the largest dedicated stem cell fellowship program in the world and was developed to train and support young scientists working on groundbreaking research in the field of stem cell research. Haws is one of only five inductees into the 2022 class of fellows.
Haws earned his Ph.D. in Nutritional Sciences in 2021 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied metabolism-chromatin connections under the mentorship of John Denu, Professor in Biomolecular Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a NYSCF – Druckenmiller Fellow in the Cremins Laboratory for Genome Architecture and Spatial Neurobiology, Haws is using this previously developed expertise to frame his investigations into the underlying mechanisms driving the neurodegenerative disorder fragile X syndrome (FXS). “Ultimately, I hope that this work will help guide the development of future FXS-specific therapeutics of which none currently exist,” says Haws.
Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins, Associate Professor and Dean’s Faculty Fellow in Bioengineering and Genetics, has been awarded the 2022 Dr. Susan Lim Award for Outstanding Young Investigator by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), the preeminent, global organization dedicated to stem cells research.
This award recognizes the exceptional achievements of an investigator in the early part of his or her independent career in stem cell research. Cremins works in the field of epigenetics, and is a pioneer in understanding how chromatin, the substance within a chromosome, works:
“Dr. Phillips-Cremins is a gifted researcher with diverse skills across cell, molecular, and computational biology. She is a shining star in the stem cell field who has already made landmark contributions in bringing long-range chromatin folding mechanisms to stem cell research. In addition to her skills as an outstanding researcher,” ISSCR President Melissa Little, Ph.D., said. “She has flourished as an independent investigator, providing the stem cell field with unique and creative approaches that have facilitated conceptual leaps in our understanding of long-range spatial regulation of stem cell fate. Congratulations, Jennifer, on this prestigious honor.”
Cremins was awarded a NIH Director’s Pioneer Award in 2021 and a Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) grant as part of the CZI Collaborative Pairs Pilot Project in 2020. The long-term goal of her lab is to understand the mechanisms by which chromatin architecture governs genome function. The ISSCR will recognize Cremins and her research in a plenary session during the ISSCR annual meeting on June 15.
More data is being produced across diverse fields within science, engineering, and medicine than ever before, and our ability to collect, store, and manipulate it grows by the day. With scientists of all stripes reaping the raw materials of the digital age, there is an increasing focus on developing better strategies and techniques for refining this data into knowledge, and that knowledge into action.
Enter data science, where researchers try to sift through and combine this information to understand relevant phenomena, build or augment models, and make predictions.
One powerful technique in data science’s armamentarium is machine learning, a type of artificial intelligence that enables computers to automatically generate insights from data without being explicitly programmed as to which correlations they should attempt to draw.
Advances in computational power, storage, and sharing have enabled machine learning to be more easily and widely applied, but new tools for collecting reams of data from massive, messy, and complex systems—from electron microscopes to smart watches—are what have allowed it to turn entire fields on their heads.
“This is where data science comes in,” says Susan Davidson, Weiss Professor in Computer and Information Science (CIS) at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “In contrast to fields where we have well-defined models, like in physics, where we have Newton’s laws and the theory of relativity, the goal of data science is to make predictions where we don’t have good models: a data-first approach using machine learning rather than using simulation.”
Penn Engineering’s formal data science efforts include the establishment of the Warren Center for Network & Data Sciences, which brings together researchers from across Penn with the goal of fostering research and innovation in interconnected social, economic and technological systems. Other research communities, including Penn Research in Machine Learning and the student-run Penn Data Science Group, bridge the gap between schools, as well as between industry and academia. Programmatic opportunities for Penn students include a Data Science minor for undergraduates, and a Master of Science in Engineering in Data Science, which is directed by Davidson and jointly administered by CIS and Electrical and Systems Engineering.
Penn academic programs and researchers on the leading edge of the data science field will soon have a new place to call home: Amy Gutmann Hall. The 116,000-square-foot, six-floor building, located on the northeast corner of 34th and Chestnut Streets near Lauder College House, will centralize resources for researchers and scholars across Penn’s 12 schools and numerous academic centers while making the tools of data analysis more accessible to the entire Penn community.
Faculty from all six departments in Penn Engineering are at the forefront of developing innovative data science solutions, primarily relying on machine learning, to tackle a wide range of challenges. Researchers show how they use data science in their work to answer fundamental questions in topics as diverse as genetics, “information pollution,” medical imaging, nanoscale microscopy, materials design, and the spread of infectious diseases.
Bioengineering: Unraveling the 3D genomic code
Scattered throughout the genomes of healthy people are tens of thousands of repetitive DNA sequences called short tandem repeats (STRs). But the unstable expansion of these repetitions is at the root of dozens of inherited disorders, including Fragile X syndrome, Huntington’s disease, and ALS. Why these STRs are susceptible to this disease-causing expansion, whereas most remain relatively stable, remains a major conundrum.
Complicating this effort is the fact that disease-associated STR tracts exhibit tremendous diversity in sequence, length, and localization in the genome. Moreover, that localization has a three-dimensional element because of how the genome is folded within the nucleus. Mammalian genomes are organized into a hierarchy of structures called topologically associated domains (TADs). Each one spans millions of nucleotides and contains smaller subTADs, which are separated by linker regions called boundaries.
“The genetic code is made up of three billion base pairs. Stretched out end to end, it is 6 feet 5 inches long, and must be subsequently folded into a nucleus that is roughly the size of a head of a pin,” says Jennifer Phillips-Cremins, associate professor and dean’s faculty fellow in Bioengineering. “Genome folding is an exciting problem for engineers to study because it is a problem of big data. We not only need to look for patterns along the axis of three billion base pairs of letters, but also along the axis of how the letters are folded into higher-order structures.”
To address this challenge, Phillips-Cremins and her team recently developed a new mathematical approach called 3DNetMod to accurately detect these chromatin domains in 3D maps of the genome in collaboration with the lab of Dani Bassett, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor in Bioengineering.
“In our group, we use an integrated, interdisciplinary approach relying on cutting-edge computational and molecular technologies to uncover biologically meaningful patterns in large data sets,” Phillips-Cremins says. “Our approach has enabled us to find patterns in data that classic biology training might overlook.”
In a recent study, Phillips-Cremins and her team used 3DNetMod to identify tens of thousands of subTADs in human brain tissue. They found that nearly all disease-associated STRs are located at boundaries demarcating 3D chromatin domains. Additional analyses of cells and brain tissue from patients with Fragile X syndrome revealed severe boundary disruption at a specific disease-associated STR.
“To our knowledge, these findings represent the first report of a possible link between STR instability and the mammalian genome’s 3D folding patterns,” Phillips-Cremins says. “The knowledge gained may shed new light into how genome structure governs function across development and during the onset and progression of disease. Ultimately, this information could be used to create molecular tools to engineer the 3D genome to control repeat instability.”
Each year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recognizes exceptionally creative scientists through its High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program. The four awards granted by this program are designed to support researchers whose “out of the box” and “trailblazing” ideas have the potential for broad impact.
Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins, Associate Professor and Dean’s Faculty Fellow in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering and the Perelman School of Medicine’s Department of Genetics, is one such researcher. As a recipient of an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, she will receive $3.5 million over five years to support her work on the role that the physical folding of chromatin plays in the encoding of neural circuit and synapse properties contributing to long-term memory.
Phillips-Cremins’ award is one of 106 grants made through the High-Risk, High-Reward program this year, though she is only one of 10 to receive the Pioneer Award, which is the program’s largest funding opportunity.
“The science put forward by this cohort is exceptionally novel and creative and is sure to push at the boundaries of what is known,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins.
Phillips-Cremins’ research is in the general field of epigenetics, the molecular and structural modifications that allow the genome — an identical copy of which is found in each cell — to express genes differently at different times and in different parts of the body. Within this field, her lab focuses on higher-order folding patterns of the DNA sequence, which bring distant sets of genes and regulatory elements into close proximity with one another as they are compressed inside the cell’s nucleus.
Previous work from the Cremins lab has investigated severe genome misfolding patterns common across a class of genetic neurological disorders, including fragile X syndrome, Huntington’s disease, ALS and Friedreich’s ataxia.
With the support of the Pioneer Award, she and the members of her lab will extend that research to a more fundamental question of neuroscience: how memory is encoded over decades, despite the rapid turnover of the relevant proteins and RNA sequences within the brain’s synapses.
“Our long-term goals are to understand how, when and why pathologic genome misfolding leads to synaptic dysfunction by way of disrupted gene expression,” said Phillips-Cremins, “as well as to engineer the genome’s structure-function relationship to reverse pathologic synaptic defects in debilitating neurological diseases.”
Popular accounts of the human genome often depict it as a long string of DNA base pairs, but in reality the genome is separated into chromosomes that are tightly twisted and coiled into complex three-dimensional structures. These structures create a myriad of connections between sites on the genome that would be distant from one another if stretched out end-to-end. These “long range interactions” are not incidental — they regulate the activity of our genes during development and can cause disease when disrupted.
Now two teams of researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, each led by Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins, associate professor and Dean’s Faculty Fellow in the Department of Bioengineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Science and of Genetics at the Perelman School of Medicine have been awarded grants totaling $9 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as part of a major NIH Common Fund initiative to understand such 3D-genomic interactions.
The initiative, known as the 4D Nucleome Program, broadly aims to map higher-order genome structures across space and time, as well as to understand how the twists and loops of the DNA sequence govern genome function and cellular phenotype in health and disease.
N.B.: In addition to Phillips-Cremins, collaborators include Arjun Raj, Professor in Bioengineering and Genetics, and Bioengineering Graduate Group Members Melike Lakadamyali, Associate Professor in Physiology, and Bomyi Lim, Assistant Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Collaborative Pairs Pilot Project Award is part of its Neurodegeneration Challenge Network
More than 30 inherited disorders are caused by the unstable expansion of repetitive DNA sequences, including Huntington’s disease, ALS, Fragile X syndrome, and Friedreich’s ataxia. Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins, associate professor in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering and in the Perelman School of Medicine’s Department of Genetics, has shown another link between these disorders: the location of these expanding genes relative to the complicated folding patterns the genome exhibits to fit inside the nucleus of a cell.
Now, Phillips-Cremins is among 60 researchers taking part in a $4.5 Million Chan Zuckerberg Initiative project that aims to apply novel, interdisciplinary approaches toward investigating neurodegenerative disorders. The CZI Collaborative Pairs Pilot Project will fund 30 teams that combine clinical and basic science expertise and have at least one early- or mid-career researcher.
In a recent piece profiling top technologies to watch in 2020, Cremins spoke to Nature about which technological trends she saw as being important for the year to come. In the panel, which highlighted perspectives from a panel of researchers across several fields, Cremins discussed the increasing relevance of innovations that would allow researchers to study the way that folding patterns within the human genome can influence how genes are expressed in healthy individuals and misregulated in human disease.
One such innovation is actually employed by the Cremins Lab: light-activated dynamic looping (LADL). This technique uses both CRISPR/Cas9 and optogenetics to induce folding patterns into the genome on demand, using light as a trigger. In doing so, Cremins and her fellow researchers can more efficiently study the patterns of the human genome, and what effects certain folding patterns can have on the gene expression state of the cell.
Now, with her new promotion, Cremins can continue advancing her research in understanding the genetic and epigenetic mechanisms that regulate neural connections during brain development, with a focus on how that understanding can eventually lead to better treatments of neurological disease. Beyond the lab, she’ll now lead a new Spatial Epigenetics program, bringing together scientists across Penn’s campus to understand how the spatial connections between biomolecules influence biological behavior. She will also continue teaching her hallmark course for Penn Bioengineering undergraduate students, Biological Data Science, and her more advanced graduate-level course in epigenomics. Congratulations, Dr. Cremins!
Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, recently reached out to a panel of researchers from a variety of fields, asking them what technological trends they see as having the most impact on their disciplines in the coming year.
Jennifer Phillips-Cremins, assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering, was among these panelists. As an expert in “3D epigenetics,” or the way the genome’s highly specific folding patterns influence how and when individual genes are expressed, she highlighted a slate of new techniques that will allow researchers to take a closer look at those relationships.
A collaborative study conducted by researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), Penn Engineering and Pennsylvania State University has uncovered new information about how chromosomal material in cell nuclei reorganizes itself after cell division.
While a deep understanding of the cell cycle is a cornerstone of biology and health sciences, research into the complex relationship between three-dimensional chromatin structure and gene transcription is still in its infancy. The results of this study will contribute to a more robust understanding of chromatin rebuilding after mitosis and potentially aid in the treatment of genetic diseases.
Phillips-Cremins’ research uses genetic engineering approaches to discover the mechanisms regulating chromatin organizing principles in cells, as well as computational approaches to investigate cellular function. Her lab’s techniques provide ways of mapping the three-dimensional organization of genes while they are folded together in the genome and how those spatial relationships impact gene expression.
The research team performed their experiments in blood-forming cells from a well-established mouse model. They used sophisticated techniques called high throughput chromosome conformation capture (Hi-C) that detect and map interactions across three-dimensional space between specific sites in chromosomal DNA. These maps also allowed the scientists to measure such interactions at different time points in the cell cycle. In all, the tools detected roughly 2 billion interactions during mitosis and thereafter, when the daughter nuclei are rebuilt.
Members of the Cremins Lab, Daniel J. Emerson, Thomas G. Gilgenast and Katelyn R. Titus, also contributed to the study, which was published in Nature.
Electrode Arrays and Star Wars Help to Inspire a New Prosthetic Arm
After nearly fifteen years of work, a new high-tech prosthetic arm from researchers at the University of Utah allows hand amputees to pluck grapes, pick up eggs without breaking them, and even put on their wedding rings. Named after Luke Skywalker’s robotic hand in the Star Wars saga, the LUKE Arm includes sensors that better mimic the way the human body sends information to the brain, allowing users to distinguish between soft and hard surfaces and to perform more complicated tasks. The arm relies heavily on an electrode array invented by University of Utah biomedical engineering professor Richard A. Normann, Ph.D., which is a bundle of microelectrodes that enable a computer to read signals from connected nerves in the user’s forearm.
But the biggest innovation in the use of these electrode arrays for the LUKE Arm is in the way they allow the prosthetic to mimic the sense of feeling on the surface of an object that indicates how much pressure should be applied when handling it. Gregory Clark, Ph.D., an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Utah and the leader of the LUKE Arm project, says the key to improving these functions in the prosthetic was by more closely mimicking the path that this information takes to the brain, as opposed to merely what comprises that sensory information. In the future, Clark hopes to improve upon the LUKE Arm by including more inputs, like one for temperature data, and on making them more portable by eliminating the device’s need for computer connection.
Philly Voice Recognizes the Cremins Lab’s Innovations in Light-Activated Gene-Folding
While technological advancements over the past few decades have opened doors to understanding the topological structures of DNA, we still have far more to learn about how these structures impact and contribute to genome function. But here at Penn, the Cremins Laboratory in 3D Epigenomes and Systems Neurobiology hopes to fix that. Led by Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins, Ph.D., members of the lab use light-activated dynamic looping (LADL) to better understand the way that genome topological properties and folding can affect protein translation. Cremins and her lab use this technique to force specific genome folds to interact with each other, and create temporary DNA loops that can then be bound together in the presence of blue light for certain proteins in the Arabidopsis plant. Using the data from these tests, researchers can better understand the genome structure-function relationships, and hopefully open the door to new treatments for diseases in which expression or mis-expression of certain genes is the cause.
Artificial Cells Can Deliver Molecules Better than the Real Thing
From pills to vaccines, ways to deliver drugs into the body have been constantly evolving since the early days of medicine.
Now, a new study from an interdisciplinary team led by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania provides a new platform for how drugs could be delivered to their targets in the future. Their work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The research focuses on a dendrimersome, a compartment with a lamellar structure and size that mimic a living cell. It can be thought of as the shipping box of the cellular world that carries an assortment of molecules as cargo.
The scientists found that these dendrimersomes, which have a multilayered, onion-like structure, were able to “carry” high concentrations of molecules that don’t like water, which is common in pharmaceutical drugs. They were also able to carry these molecules more efficiently than other commercially available vessels. Additionally, the building block of the cell-like compartment, a janus dendrimer, is classified as an amphiphile, meaning it contains molecules that don’t like water and also molecules that are soluble in water, like lipids, that make up natural membranes.
“This is a different amphiphile that makes really cool self-assembled onions into which we were able to load a bunch of molecular cargos,” says co-author Matthew Good.
In a recent review of over 5,000 sleep studies, biomedical engineering researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found a connection between water-based passive body heating and sleep onset latency, efficiency, and quality. Using meta-analytical tools to compare all of the studies and patient data, lead author and Ph.D. candidate Shahab Haghayegh and his team found that a warm bath in the temperature range of 104-109 degrees Fahrenheit taken 1-2 hours before bed has the ability to improve all three considered sleep categories. This makes sense considering that our body’s Circadian rhythms govern both our sleep cycles and temperature, bringing us to a higher temperature during the day and a lower one at night during sleep. In fact, this lowering of body temperature before sleep is what helps to trigger the onset of sleep, so taking a warm bath and allowing your body to cool down from it before going to sleep enhances the body’s own efforts of naturally cooling down before we go to bed. With this new and comprehensive review, those who suffer from poor sleep quality may soon find solace in temperature regulation therapy systems.
People & Places
With the recent 50th anniversary of the first moon landing by Americans Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins in 1969, ABC News looked back at one of the women involved in the project. Judy Sullivan was a biomedical engineer at the time of the project, and served as the lead engineer of the biomedical system for Apollo 11. In this role, she led studies on the astronauts’ breathing rates and sensor capabilities for the devices being sent into space to help the astronauts monitor their health. For the Apollo 11 mission and a lot of Sullivan’s early work at NASA, she worked on teams of all men, as women were often encouraged to become teachers, secretaries, or homemakers over other professions. Today, Sullivan says she’s thrilled that women have more career options to choose from, and wants to continue seeing more women getting involved in math and science.
We would like to congratulate Sanjay Kumar, M.D., Ph.D., on his appointment as the new Department Chair of Bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Since joining the faculty in 2005, Kumar has received several prestigious awards including the NSF Career Award, the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, and the Berkeley student-voted Outstanding Teacher Award.