A pair of proteins, YAP and TAZ, has been identified as conductors of bone development in the womb and could provide insight into genetic diseases such as osteogenesis imperfecta, known commonly as “brittle bone disease.” This research, published in Developmental Cell and led by members of the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory of the Perelman School of Medicine, adds understanding to the field of mechanobiology, which studies how mechanical forces influence biology.
“Despite more than a century of study on the mechanobiology of bone development, the cellular and molecular basis largely has remained a mystery,” says the study’s senior author, Joel Boerckel, an associate professor of orthopaedic surgery. “Here, we identify a new population of cells that are key to turning the body’s early cartilage template into bone, guided by the force-activated gene regulating proteins, YAP and TAZ.”
Positive results in first-in-U.S. trial of CRISPR-edited immune cells
Genetically editing a cancer patient’s immune cells using CRISPR/Cas9 technology, then infusing those cells back into the patient appears safe and feasible based on early data from the first-ever clinical trial to test the approach in humans in the United States. Researchers from the Abramson Cancer Center have infused three participants in the trial thus far—two with multiple myeloma and one with sarcoma—and have observed the edited T cells expand and bind to their tumor target with no serious side effects related to the investigational approach. Penn is conducting the ongoing study in cooperation with the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy and Tmunity Therapeutics.
“This trial is primarily concerned with three questions: Can we edit T cells in this specific way? Are the resulting T cells functional? And are these cells safe to infuse into a patient? This early data suggests that the answer to all three questions may be yes,” says the study’s principal investigator Edward A. Stadtmauer, section chief of Hematologic Malignancies at Penn. Stadtmauer will present the findings next month at the 61st American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting and Exposition.
Because of the opioid epidemic sweeping the nation, Moore notes that there’s a rapid search going on to develop non-addictive painkiller options. However, he also sees a gap in adequate models to test those new drugs before human clinical trials are allowed to take place. Here is where he hopes to step in and bring some innovation to the field, by integrating living human cells into a computer chip for modeling pain mechanisms. Through his research, Moore wants to better understand not only how some drugs can induce pain, but also how patients can grow tolerant to some drugs over time. If successful, Moore’s work will lead to a more rapid and less expensive screening option for experimental drug advancements.
New machine learning-assisted microscope yields improved diagnostics
Researchers at Duke University recently developed a microscope that uses machine learning to adapt its lighting angles, colors, and patterns for diagnostic tests as needed. Most microscopes have lighting tailored to human vision, with an equal distribution of light that’s optimized for human eyes. But by prioritizing the computer’s vision in this new microscope, researchers enable it to see aspects of samples that humans simply can’t, allowing for a more accurate and efficient diagnostic approach.
Led by Roarke W. Horstmeyer, Ph.D., the computer-assisted microscope will diffuse light through a bowl-shaped source, allowing for a much wider range of illumination angles than traditional microscopes. With the help of convolutional neural networks — a special kind of machine learning algorithm — Horstmeyer and his team were able to tailor the microscope to accurately diagnose malaria in red blood cell samples. Where human physicians typically perform similar diagnostics with a rate of 75 percent accuracy, this new microscope can do the same work with 90 percent accuracy, making the diagnostic process for many diseases much more efficient.
Case Western Reserve University researchers create first-ever holographic map of brain
A Case Western Reserve University team of researchers recently spearheaded a project in creating an interactive holographic mapping system of the human brain. The design, which is believed to be the first of its kind, involves the use of the Microsoft HoloLens mixed reality platform. Lead researcher Cameron McIntyre, Ph.D., sees this mapping system as a better way of creating holographic navigational routes for deep brain stimulation. Recent beta tests with the map by clinicians give McIntyre hope that the holographic representation will help them better understand some of the uncertainties behind targeted brain surgeries.
More than merely providing a useful tool, McIntyre’s project also brings together decades’ worth of neurological data that has not yet been seriously studied together in one system. The three-dimensional atlas, called “HoloDBS” by his lab, provides a way of finally seeing the way all of existing neuro-anatomical data relates to each other, allowing clinicians who use the tool to better understand the brain on both an analytical and visual basis.
Implantable cancer traps reduce biopsy incidence and improve diagnostic
Biopsies are one of the most common procedures used for cancer diagnostics, involving a painful and invasive surgery. Researchers at the University of Michigan are trying to change that. Lonnie Shea, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical engineering at the university, worked with his lab to develop implants with the ability to attract any cancer cells within the body. The implant can be inserted through a scaffold placed under the patient’s skin, making it a more ideal option than biopsy for inaccessible organs like lungs.
The lab’s latest work on the project, published in Cancer Research, details its ability to capture metastatic breast cancer cells in vivo. Instead of needing to take biopsies from areas deeper within the body, the implant allows for a much simpler surgical procedure, as biopsies can be taken from the implant itself. Beyond its initial diagnostic advantages, the implant also has the ability to attract immune cells with tumor cells. By studying both types of cells, the implant can give information about the current state of cancer in a patient’s body and about how it might progress. Finally, by attracting tumor and immune cells, the implant has the ability to draw them away from the area of concern, acting in some ways as a treatment for cancer itself.
People and Places
The Philadelphia Inquirer recently published an article detailing the research of Penn’s Presidential Assistant Professor in Psychiatry, Microbiology, and Bioengineering, Cesar de la Fuente, Ph.D. In response to a growing level of worldwide deaths due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, de la Fuente and his lab use synthetic biology, computation, and artificial intelligence to test hundreds of millions of variations in bacteria-killing proteins in the same experiment. Through his research, de la Fuente opens the door to new ways of finding and testing future antibiotics that might be the only viable options in a world with an increasing level of drug-resistant bacteria
Emily Eastburn, a Ph.D. candidate in Bioengineering at Penn and a member of the Boerckel lab of the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory, recently won the Ashton fellowship. The Ashton fellowship is an award for postdoctoral students in any field of engineering that are under the age of 25, third-generation American citizens, and residents of either Pennsylvania or New Jersey. A new member of the Boerckel lab, having joined earlier this fall, Eastburn will have the opportunity to conduct research throughout her Ph.D. program in the developmental mechanobiology and regeneration that the Boerckel lab focuses on.
To treat large gaps in long bones, like the femur, which result from bone tumor removal or a shattering trauma, researchers at Penn Medicine and the University of Illinois at Chicago developed a process that partially recreates the bone growth process that occurs before birth. A bone defect of more than two centimeters is considered substantial, and current successful healing rates stand at 50% or less, with failure often resulting in amputation. The team hopes that their method, which they’ve developed in rodent models to mimic the process of rapid fetal bone growth, can substantially improve success rates. Their findings are published in Science Translational Medicine.
“When bones are originally formed in the embryo, they’re first generated from cartilage, like a template,” says senior author Joel Boerckel, an assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery and bioengineering. “In order to regenerate bone within defects that otherwise won’t heal in grown people, we are seeking to recreate the embryonic bone development process.”
To do that, the researchers’ process begins with the delivery of specially engineered stem cells (called a condensation of mesenchymal cells) to the rodents’ bone defect, which sparks endochondral ossification, the specific term for embryonic bone development.
When cells move throughout the body, they do so by dragging themselves, using molecular “arms” to pull themselves closer to where they need to be while unlatching themselves from the area they’re moving away from. In a recent study, Penn Engineers looked at a few mechanobiological factors that help regulate cells’ migration towards their destination, providing new insight into the gene expression feedback loops that keep them from getting stuck.
The research was led by Joel Boerckel, Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery in the Perelman School of Medicine and in Bioengineering in Penn Engineering, and bioengineering graduate student Devon Mason. Co-authors include bioengineering graduate student Joseph Collins and researchers from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana University and Purdue University.
New Vascularized Patches Could Help Patient Recovery from Heart Attacks
Heart attacks are the result of a stoppage of blood flow to the heart – an interruption to normal function that can result in severe tissue damage, or even tissue death. This loss of healthy tissue function is one of the biggest challenges in treating patients that undergo heart attacks, as the damaged tissue increases their risk of having future attacks. One of the main solutions to this issue right now is the creation of cardiac tissue scaffolds using stem cells to create a platform for new and healthy tissue to grow in vivo. A group of biomedical engineers at Michigan Technological University hopes to expand on this basis by focusing not just on cellular alignment in the scaffold but on that of microvessels too. Led by Feng Zhao, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, the team hopes that this new attention on microvessel organization will improve the vasculature of the scaffolds, and thus improve the success of the scaffolds in vivo, allowing for a better recovery from heart attacks.
Some Stem Cells May Be More Fit Than Others
Stem cells are one of the hottest research areas in the field of bioengineering today. Widely known as the cells in the human embryo that have the ability to eventually transform into specific cells for the brain, lung, and every other organ, stem cells are also of recent interest because researchers found ways to reverse this process, transforming organ-specific cells back to the pluripotent stem cell level. This achievement however, is mostly applicable to individual stem cells, and doesn’t fully encapsulate the way this process might work on a larger population level. So Peter Zandstra, Ph. D., a bioengineering faculty member at the University of British Columbia, decided to research just that.
Using mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs), Zandstra and his lab attempted to track the cells throughout their reprogramming, to more clearly trace each back to its respective parent population. Surprisingly, they found that after only one week of reprogramming, nearly 80% of the original cell population had been removed, meaning that most of the parent generation was not “fit” enough to undergo the process of reprogramming, indicating that perhaps some stem cells will have a better chance of survival in this process than others. This research may suggest that not all cells have the capacity to undergo reprogramming, as many researchers originally thought.
A New Microdevice Will Help Model Bronchial Spasms
The difficulty in breathing associated with asthma is the result of bronchial spasms, which are a kind of muscle contraction in the airways. But little was known about just how these spasms occurred in patients, so Andre Levchenko, Ph.D., Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins, and his lab created a microdevice to model them. Calling the device a “bronchi on a chip,” Levchenko and his team used a microphysiological model to look at some of the biochemical and mechanical signals associated with these kinds of muscle contractions. They found that the contractions operate in a positive feedback system, so that those caused by disturbance from allergens will subsequently cause even more contractions to occur. But surprisingly, they also found that a second contraction, if triggered at the right time during the initial contraction, could actually stop the process and allow the muscles to relax. Because asthma is a notoriously difficult disease to translate from animal to human models, this new device opens the door to understanding different mechanisms of asthma before taking research to clinical trials.
New CHOP Research Center to Focus Research on Pediatric Airway Disorders
A new bioengineering lab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia called the Center for Pediatric Airway Disorders will specialize in a variety of airway procedures for pediatric patients such as tracheal reconstruction and recurrent laryngeal nerve reinnervation. This new lab will be one of the first to give a unique focus to the application of bioengineering to pediatric laryngology. The interdisciplinary center brings together students and researchers from all different fields, including materials science and microbiology, to find new ways of repairing tissue and regenerating organs related to respiratory disorders. Specific areas of research will involve the modeling of children’s vocal cords, understanding the mechanisms of fibrosis, and improving surgical procedures.
Deeper Understanding of Sickle Cell Anemia Could Lead to New Treatments
Though sickle cell anemia is a common and well-known disease, a new study of its causes at the nanoscale level might reveal previously unknown information about the assembly of hemoglobin fibers. Using microscopes with the ability to visualize these molecules at such a small level, researchers at the University of Minnesota found that the beginning organizations that lead to sickle cell anemia are much less ordered than originally thought. Led by Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering David Wood, Ph.D., the team of researchers used this higher level of microscopy to find that hemoglobin self-assembly process, which was originally thought to be 96% efficient, is actually only 4% efficient. Wood hopes that this new knowledge will help allow for the development of new and better treatments for patients with sickle cell anemia, as there are currently only two FDA-approved ones on the market.
People & Places
Penn Today asked five Penn researchers about the women in STEM who have been a source of inspiration and encouragement throughout their own careers. Their responses include active researchers who have paved the way for better inclusion in STEM and famous female scientists from the past who broke boundaries as they made strides with their research.
Joel Boerckel, Ph.D, Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering
This week, we want to congratulate Joel Boerckel, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering, and his lab on receiving a second R01 Grant from the National Institute of Arthritis and and Musculoskeletal Skin Diseases for their work on defining the roles of YAP and TAZ in embryonic bone morphogenesis and mechanoregulation of fracture repair. Dr. Boerckel is a member of the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory.
We would also like to congratulate Christopher Yip, Ph. D., on being appointed as the new dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering. A professor in both the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, Dr. Yip’s research involves the use of molecular imaging to understand the self-assembly of proteins.
Continuing with our series of interviews with new faculty members, we feature this interview with Dr. Joel Boerckel, who has a dual appointment in the Department of Bioengineering at Penn and the Perelman School of Medicine’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Dr. Boerckel’s research concerns the mechanobiology of development and regeneration. Here, he speaks with Andrew Mathis about his career to this point and where he sees the fields of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine heading over the future. Enjoy!