The COVID-19 vaccine swiftly undercut the worst of the pandemic for hundreds of millions around the world. Available sooner than almost anyone expected, these vaccines were a triumph of resourcefulness and skill.
Messenger RNA vaccines, like the ones manufactured by Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech, owed their speed and success to decades of research reinforcing the safety and effectiveness of their unique immune-instructive technology.
In addition to outlining a more flexible and effective COVID-19 vaccine, this work has potential to increase the scope of mRNA vaccines writ large, contributing to prevention and treatment for a range of different illnesses.
mRNA, or messenger ribonucleic acid, is the body’s natural go-between. mRNA contains the instructions our cells need to produce proteins that play important roles in our bodies’ health, including mounting immune responses.
The COVID-19 vaccines follow suit, sending a single strand of RNA to teach our cells how to recognize and fight the virus.
Congratulations to the fourteen Bioengineering students to receive 2023 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) fellowships. The prestigious NSF GRFP program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported fields. The recipients honorees were selected from a highly-competitive, nationwide pool. Further information about the program can be found on the NSF website.
Carlos Armando Aguila, Ph.D. student in Bioengineering, is a member of the Center of Neuroengineering and Therapeutics, advised by Erin Conrad, Assistant Professor in Neurology, and Brian Litt, Professor in Bioengineering and Neurology. His research focuses on analyzing electroencephalogram (EEG) signals to better understand epilepsy.
Joseph Lance Victoria Casila is a Ph.D. student in Bioengineering in the lab of Riccardo Gottardi, Assistant Professor in Pediatrics and Bioengineering. His research focuses on probing environmental factors that influence stem cell differentiation towards chondrogenesis for cartilage engineering and regeneration.
Trevor Chan is a Ph.D. student in Bioengineering in the lab of Felix Wehrli, Professor of Radiologic Science. His research is in developing computational methods for medical image refinement and analysis. Two ongoing projects are: self-supervised methods for CT super-resolution and assessment of osteoporosis, and semi-supervised segmentation of 3D and 4D echocardiograms for surgical correction of congenital heart-valve defects.
Rakan El-Mayta is an incoming Ph.D. student in the lab of Drew Weissman, Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research. Rakan studies messenger RNA-lipid nanoparticle vaccines for the treatment and prevention of infectious diseases. Prior to starting in the Bioengineering graduate program, he worked as a Research Assistant in Weissman lab and in the lab of Michael Mitchell, Associate Professor in Bioengineering.
Austin Jenk is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor in Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering. Austin aims to develop early intervention, intra-articular therapeutics to combat the onset of post-traumatic osteoarthritis following acute joint injuries. His work focuses on developing a therapeutic that can be employed not only in conventional healthcare settings, but also emergency and battlefield medicine.
Jiageng Liu is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Alex Hughes, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering. His work aims to precisely control the bio-physical/chemical properties of iPSC-derived organoids with advanced synthetic biology approaches to create functional replacement renal tissues.
Alexandra Neeser is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Leyuan Ma, Assistant Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. Her research focuses on solid tumor microenvironment delivery of therapeutics.
William Karl Selboe Ojemann, a Ph.D. Student in Bioengineering, is a member of the Center for Neuroengineering and Therapeutics directed by Brian Litt, Professor in Bioengineering and Neurology. His research is focused on developing improved neurostimulation therapies for epilepsy and other neurological disorders.
Savan Patel (BSE Class of 2023) conducted research in the lab of Michael Mitchell, Associate Professor in Bioengineering, where he worked to develop lipid nanoparticle formulations for immunotherapy and extrahepatic delivery of mRNA. He will be joining the Harvard-MIT HST MEMP Ph.D. program in the fall of 2023.
David E. Reynolds, a Ph.D. student in Bioengineering, is a member of the lab of Jina Ko, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. His research focuses on developing novel and translatable technologies to address currently intractable diagnostic challenges for precision medicine.
Andre Roots is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Christopher Madl, Assistant Professor in Materials Science and Engineering. His research focuses on the use of protein engineering techniques and an optimized 3D human skeletal muscle microtissue platform to study the effects of biophysical material properties on cells.
Emily Sharp, a second year Ph.D. student in Bioengineering, is a member of the lab of Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor in Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering, part of the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratories. Her research focuses on designing multi-functional biomaterials to enhance tissue repair, specifically intervertebral disc repair following herniation and discectomy.
Nat Thurlow is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Louis J. Soslowsky, Fairhill Professor in Orthopedic Surgery and Bioengineering. Their current work focuses on delineating the roles of collagens V and XI in tendon mechanics, fibril structure, and gene expression during tendon development and healing.
Maggie Wagner, Ph.D. student in Bioengineering, is a member in the labs of Josh Baxter, Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, and Flavia Vitale, Assistant Professor in Neurology and Bioengineering. Her research focuses on the development of novel sensors to record and monitor muscle neuromechanics.
Neil Sheppard, Adjunct Associate Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine, and David Mai, a Bioengineering graduate student in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, explained the findings of their recent study, which offered a potential strategy to improve T cell therapy in solid tumors, to the European biotech news website Labiotech.
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.
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.
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.
The Penn Center for Precision Engineering for Health (CPE4H) was established late last year to accelerate engineering solutions to significant problems in healthcare. The center is one of the signature initiatives for Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and is supported by a $100 million commitment to hire faculty and support new research on innovative approaches to those problems.
Acting on that commitment, CPE4H solicited proposals during the spring of 2022 for seed grants of $80K per year for two years for research projects that address healthcare challenges in several key areas of strategic importance to Penn: synthetic biology and tissue engineering, diagnosis and drug delivery, and the development of innovative devices. While the primary investigators (PIs) for the proposed projects were required to have a primary faculty appointment within Penn Engineering, teams involving co-PIs and collaborators from other schools were eligible for support. The seed program is expected to continue for the next four years.
“It was a delight to read so many novel and creative proposals,” says Daniel A. Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in Bioengineering and the Inaugural Director of CPE4H. “It was very hard to make the final selection from a pool of such promising projects.”
Judged on technical innovation, potential to attract future resources, and ability to address a significant medical problem, the following research projects were selected to receive funding.
Evolving and Engineering Thermal Control of Mammalian Cells
Led by Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, this project will engineer molecular switches that can be toggled on and off inside mammalian cells at near-physiological temperatures. Successful development of these switches will provide new ways to communicate with cells, an advance that could be used to make safer and more effective cellular therapies. The project will use directed evolution to generate and find candidate molecular tools with the desired properties. Separately, the research will also develop new technology for manipulating cellular temperature in a rapid and programmable way. Such devices will enhance the speed and sophistication of studies of biological temperature regulation.
A Quantum Sensing Platform for Rapid and Accurate Point-of-Care Detection of Respiratory Viral Infections
Combining microfluidics and quantum photonics, PI Liang Feng, Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, Ritesh Agarwal, Professor in Materials Science Engineering, and Shu Yang, Joseph Bordogna Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, are teaming up with Ping Wang, Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, to design, build and test an ultrasensitive point-of-care detector for respiratory pathogens. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, a generalizable platform for rapid and accurate detection of viral pathogenesis would be extremely important and timely.
Versatile Coacervating Peptides as Carriers and Synthetic Organelles for Cell Engineering
PI Amish Patel, Associate Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Matthew C. Good, Associate Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in the Perelman School of Medicine and in Bioengineering, will design and create small proteins that self-assemble into droplet-like structures known as coacervates, which can then pass through the membranes of biological cells. Upon cellular entry, these protein coacervates can disassemble to deliver cargo that modulates cell behavior or be maintained as synthetic membraneless organelles. The team will design new chemistries that will facilitate passage across cell membranes, and molecular switches to sequester and release protein therapeutics. If successful, this approach could be used to deliver a wide range of macromolecule drugs to cells.
Towards an Artificial Muscle Replacement for Facial Reanimation
Cynthia Sung, Gabel Family Term Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics and Computer Information Science, will lead a research team including Flavia Vitale, Assistant Professor of Neurology and Bioengineering, and Niv Milbar, Assistant Instructor in Surgery in the Perelman School of Medicine. The team will develop and validate an electrically driven actuator to restore basic muscle responses in patients with partial facial paralysis, which can occur after a stroke or injury. The research will combine elements of robotics and biology, and aims to produce a device that can be clinically tested.
“These novel ideas are a great way to kick off the activities of the center,” says Hammer. “We look forward to soliciting other exciting seed proposals over the next several years.”
Cells in complex organisms undergo frequent changes, and researchers have struggled to monitor these changes and create a comprehensive profile for living cells and tissues. Historically researchers have been limited to only 3-5 markers due to spectral overlaps in fluorescence microscopy, an essential tool required for imaging cells. With only this small handful of markers, it is difficult to monitor protein expressions of live cells and a comprehensive profile of cellular dynamics cannot be created. However, a new study in Nature Biotechnology addresses these limitations by demonstrating a new method for comprehensive profiling of living cells.
Jina Ko, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine, conducted postdoctoral research at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, and the work for this study was done under the supervision of Jonathan Carlson M.D., Ph.D. and Ralph Weissleder M.D., Ph.D. of MGH. Ko’s lab at Penn develops novel technologies using bioengineering, molecular biology, and chemistry to address diagnostic challenges for precision medicine.
To address these limitations in microscopy, the team developed a new chemistry tool which was highly gentle to cells. This “scission-accelerated fluorophore exchange (or SAFE)” method utilizes “click” chemistry, a type of chemistry that follows examples found in nature to create fast and simple reactions. This new SAFE method functions with non-toxic conditions to living cells and tissues, whereas previous methods have used harsh chemicals that would strip off fluorophores and consequently would not work with living cells and tissues.
With the development of SAFE, the authors demonstrated that researchers can now effectively perform multiple cycles of cell profiling and can monitor cellular changes over the course of their observations. Instead of the previous limitation of 3-5 markers total, SAFE allows for many more cycles and can keep track of almost as many markers as the researcher wants. One can now stain cells and quench/release fluorophores and repeat the cycle multiple times for multiplexing on living cells. Each cycle can profile 3 markers, and so someone interested in profiling 15 markers could easily perform 5 cycles to achieve this much more comprehensive cell profile. With this breakthrough in more detailed imaging of cells, SAFE demonstrates broad applicability for allowing researchers to better investigate the physiologic dynamics in living systems.
A recent Penn Medicine blog post surveys the efforts across Penn and the Perelman School of Medicine to develop novel says to detect SARS-CoV-2 and features several Department of Bioengineering faculty and Graduate Group members, including César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Psychiatry, Microbiology, and Bioengineering; Arupa Ganguly, Professor in Genetics; A.T. Charlie Johnson, Rebecca W. Bushnell Professor in Physics and Astronomy; Lyle Ungar, Professor in Computer and Information Science; and Ping Wang, Associate Professor in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.
Read “We’ll Need More than Vaccines to Vanquish the Virus: New COVID-19 Testing Technology at Penn” by Melissa Moodyin Penn Medicine News.
Election to the AIMBE College of Fellows is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to a medical and biological engineer. “The College of Fellows is comprised of the top two percent of medical and biological engineers in the country. The most accomplished and distinguished engineering and medical school chairs, research directors, professors, innovators, and successful entrepreneurs comprise the College of Fellows. AIMBE Fellows are regularly recognized for their contributions in teaching, research, and innovation.”
Huang was “nominated, reviewed, and elected by peers and members of the College of Fellows for contributions to the development and applications of innovative MR methods to study the developing brain.”
A formal induction ceremony will be held during AIMBE’s virtual 2021 Annual Event on March 26. Huang will be inducted along with 174 colleagues who make up the AIMBE Fellow Class of 2021.