Penn Bioengineering Graduate Ella Atsavapranee Wins 2023 Fulbright Grant

Ella Atsavapranee (BE 2023)

Twenty-nine University of Pennsylvania students, recent graduates, and alumni have been offered Fulbright U.S. Student Program grants for the 2023-24 academic year, including eight seniors who graduated May 15.

They will conduct research, pursue graduate degrees, or teach English in Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, Denmark, Ecuador, Estonia, France, Germany, Guatemala, India, Israel, Latvia, Mexico, Nepal, New Zealand, the West Bank-Palestine territories, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Thailand.

The Fulbright Program is the United States government’s flagship international educational exchange program, awarding grants to fund as long as 12 months of international experience.

Most of the Penn recipients applied for the Fulbright with support from the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships.

Among the Penn Fulbright grant recipients for 2023-24 is Ella Atsavapranee, from Cabin John, Maryland, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from the School of Engineering and Applied Science and a minor in chemistry from the College. She was offered a Fulbright to conduct research at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

At Penn, Atsavapranee worked with Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, engineering lipid nanoparticles to deliver proteases that inhibit cancer cell proliferation. She has also worked with Shan Wang, Leland T. Edwards Professor in the School of Engineering and Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, using bioinformatics to discover blood biomarkers for cancer detection. To achieve more equitable health care, she worked with Lisa Shieh, Clinical Professor in Medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine,  to evaluate an AI model that predicts risk of hospital readmission and study how room placement affects patient experience.

Outside of research, Atsavapranee spread awareness of ethical issues in health care and technology as editor-in-chief of the Penn Bioethics Journal and a teaching assistant for Engineering Ethics (EAS 2030). She was also a Research Peer Advisor for the Penn Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships (CURF), a student ambassador for the Office of Admissions, and a volunteer for Service Link, Puentes de Salud, and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. She plans to pursue a career as a physician-scientist to develop and translate technologies that are more affordable and accessible to underserved populations.

Read the full list of Penn Fulbright grant recipients for 2023-24 in Penn Today.

CiPD Fellows Recognized with Research Awards

Members of the inaugural cohort of fellows in the Center for Innovation and Precision Dentistry (CiPD)’s NIDCR T90/R90 Postdoctoral Training Program have been recognized for their research activities with fellows receiving awards from the American Association for Dental, Oral, and Craniofacial Research (AADOCR), the Society for Biomaterials, and the Osteology Foundation. All four of the honored postdocs are affiliated with Penn Bioengineering.

Zhi Ren

Zhi Ren won first place in the Fives-Taylor Award at the AADOCR Mini Symposium for Young Investigators. A postdoctoral fellow in the labs of Dr. Hyun (Michel) Koo at Penn Dental Medicine (and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group) and Dr. Kathleen Stebe of Penn Engineering, Dr. Ren’s research focuses on understanding how bacterial and fungal pathogens interact in the oral cavity to form a sticky plaque biofilm on teeth, which gives rise to severe childhood tooth decay that affects millions of children worldwide. In his award-winning study, titled “Interkingdom Assemblages in Saliva Display Group-Level Migratory Surface Mobility”, Dr. Ren discovered that bacteria and fungi naturally present in the saliva of toddlers with severe decay can form superorganisms able to move and rapidly spread on tooth surfaces.

Justin Burrell

Justin Burrell won second place in the AADOCR Hatton Competition postdoctoral category for his research. Dr. Burrell has been working with Dr. Anh Le in Penn Dental Medicine’s Department of Oral Surgery/Pharmacology and Dr. D. Kacy Cullen of Penn Medicine and Penn Bioengineering. Together, their interdisciplinary team of clinician-scientists, biologists, and neuroengineers have been developing novel therapies to expedite facial nerve regeneration and increase meaningful functional recovery.

Marshall Padilla

Marshall Padilla earned third place at the Society for Biomaterials Postdoctoral Recognition Award Competition for a project titled, “Branched lipid architecture improves lipid-nanoparticle-based mRNA delivery to the liver via enhanced endosomal escape”. Padilla was also a finalist in the AADOCR Hatton Award Competition, presenting on a separate project titled, “Lipid Nanoparticle Optimization for mRNA-based Oral Cancer Therapy”. Both projects employ lipid nanoparticles, the same delivery vehicles used in the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine technology. A postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Michael J. Mitchell of Penn’s Department of Bioengineering, Dr. Padilla’s research focuses on developing new ways to enhance the efficacy and safety of lipid nanoparticle technology and its applications in dentistry and biomedicine. He has been working in collaboration with Dr. Shuying (Sheri) Yang and Dr. Anh Le in Penn Dental Medicine.

Dennis Sourvanos

Dennis Sourvanos (GD’23, DScD’23) was the recipient of the Trainee Travel Grant award through the Osteology Foundation (Lucerne Switzerland). Dr. Sourvanos will be presenting his research related to medical dosimetry and tissue regeneration at the International Osteology Symposium in Barcelona, Spain (April 27th – 29th 2023). He also presented at the 2023 AADOCR/CADR Annual Meeting for his project titled, “Validating Head-and-Neck Human-Tissue Optical Properties for Photobiomodulation and Photodynamic Therapies.” Dr. Sourvanos has been working with Dr. Joseph Fiorellini in Penn Dental Medicine’s Department of Periodontics and Dr. Timothy Zhu in the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Radiation Oncology and the Smilow Center for Translational Research (and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group).

Read the full announcement in Penn Dental Medicine News.

Michael Mitchell and Kyle Vining Win IDEA Prize from CiPD and Penn Health-Tech

Michael J. Mitchell
Kyle Vining

 Michael J. Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, and Kyle Vining, Assistant Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and in Penn Dental Medicine and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, have been awarded the second-annual IDEA (Innovation in Dental Medicine and Engineering to Advance Oral Health) Prize, issued by the Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry (CiPD) and Penn Health-Tech.

“Through their collaborative research, they are aiming to develop next-generation treatments for dental caries (tooth-decay) using lipid nanoparticles, the same delivery vehicles employed in the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine technology.

‘This project shows the type of innovative ideas and collaborations that we are kickstarting through the IDEA prize,’ says Dr. Michel Koo, co-director of the CiPD and Professor at Penn Dental Medicine. ‘This is a great example of synergistic interaction at the interface of engineering and oral health’ adds Dr. Kate Stebe, co-director of the CiPD and Professor at Penn Engineering.”

Read the full announcement in Penn Dental Medicine News.

2023 Solomon R. Pollack Awards for Excellence in Graduate Bioengineering Research

The Solomon R. Pollack Award for Excellence in Graduate Bioengineering Research is given annually to the most deserving Bioengineering graduate students who have successfully completed research that is original and recognized as being at the forefront of their field. This year, the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania recognizes the stellar work of four graduate students in Bioengineering.

Margaret Billingsley

Dissertation: “Ionizable Lipid Nanoparticles for mRNA CAR T Cell Engineering”

Maggie Billingsley

Margaret earned a bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Delaware where she conducted research in the Day Lab on the use of antibody-coated gold nanoparticles for the detection of circulating tumor cells. She conducted doctoral research in the lab of Michael J. Mitchell, J. and Peter Skirkanich Assistant Professor in Bioengineering. After defending her thesis at Penn in 2022, Margaret began postdoctoral training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the Hammond Lab where she is investigating the design and application of polymeric nanoparticles for combination therapies in ovarian cancer. She plans to use these experiences to continue a research career focused on drug delivery systems.

“Maggie was an absolutely prolific Ph.D. student in my lab, who pioneered the development of new mRNA lipid nanoparticle technology to engineer the immune system to target and kill tumor cells,” says Mitchell. “Maggie is incredibly well deserving of this honor, and I am so excited to see what she accomplishes next as a Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT and ultimately as a professor running her own independent laboratory at a top academic institution.”

Victoria Muir

Dissertation: “Designing Hyaluronic Acid Granular Hydrogels for Biomaterials Applications”

Victoria Muir

Victoria is currently a Princeton University Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the lab of Sujit S. Datta, where she studies microbial community behavior in 3D environments. She obtained her Ph.D. in 2022 as an NSF Graduate Research Fellow at Penn Bioengineering under the advisement of Jason A. Burdick, Adjunct Professor in Bioengineering at Penn and Bowman Endowed Professor in Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She received a B.ChE. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Delaware in 2018 as a Eugene DuPont Scholar. Outside of research, Victoria is highly active in volunteer and leadership roles within the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), currently serving as Past Chair of the Young Professionals Community and a member of the Career and Education Operating Council (CEOC). Victoria’s career aspiration is to become a professor of chemical engineering and to lead a research program at the interaction of biomaterials, soft matter, and microbiology.

“Victoria was a fantastic Ph.D. student,” says Burdick. “She worked on important projects related to granular materials from the fundamentals to applications in tissue repair. She was also a leader in outreach activities, a great mentor to numerous undergraduates, and is already interviewing towards an independent academic position.”

Sadhana Ravikumar 

Dissertation: “Characterizing Medial Temporal Lobe Neurodegeneration Due to Tau Pathology in Alzheimer’s Disease Using Postmortem Imaging”

Sadhana Ravikumar

Sadhana completed her B.S. in Electrical Engineering at the University of Cape Town, South Africa in 2014 and her M.S. in Biomedical Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University in 2017. Outside of the lab, she enjoys spending time in nature and exploring restaurants in Philadelphia with friends. She focused her doctoral work on the development of computational image analysis techniques applied to ex vivo human brain imaging data in the Penn Image Computing and Science Laboratory of Paul Yushkevich, Professor of Radiology at the Perelman School of Medicine and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. She hopes to continue working at the intersection of machine learning and biomedical imaging to advance personalized healthcare and drug development.

“Dr. Sadhana Ravikumar’s Ph.D. work is a tour de force that combines novel methodological contributions crafted to address the challenge of anatomical variability in ultra-high resolution ex vivo human brain MRI with new clinical knowledge on the contributions of molecular pathology to neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease,” says Yushkevich. “I am thrilled that this excellent contribution, as well as Sadhana’s professionalism and commitment to mentorship, have been recognized through the Sol Pollack award.”

Hannah Zlotnick

Dissertation: “Remote Force Guided Assembly of Complex Orthopaedic Tissues”

Hannah Zlotnick

Hannah was a Ph.D. candidate in the lab of Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor in Orthopaedic Surgery and in Bioengineering. She successfully defended her thesis and graduated in August 2022. During her Ph.D., Hannah advanced the state-of-the-art in articular cartilage repair by harnessing remote fields, such as magnetism and gravity. Using these non-invasive forces, she was able to control cell positioning within engineered tissues, similar to the cell patterns within native cartilage, and enhance the integration between cartilage and bone. Her work could be used in many tissue engineering applications to recreate complex tissues and tissue interfaces. Hannah earned a B.S. in Biological Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2017 during which time she was also a member of the women’s varsity soccer team. At Penn, Hannah was also involved in the Graduate Association of Bioengineers (GABE) intramurals & leadership, and helped jumpstart the McKay DEI committee. Since completing her Ph.D., Hannah has begun her postdoctoral research as a Schmidt Science Fellow in Jason Burdick’s lab at the University of Colorado Boulder where she looks to improve in vitro disease models for osteoarthritis.

“Hannah was an outstanding graduate student, embodying all that is amazing about Penn BE – smart, driven, inventive and outstanding in every way,” says Mauck. “ I can’t wait to see where she goes and what she accomplishes!”

Congratulations to our four amazing 2023 Sol Pollack Award winners!

Two Penn Bioengineering Students Win SFB STAR Awards

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, Ph.D. student in Bioengineering

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, Ph.D. student in Bioengineering

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.

Targeted Prenatal Therapy for Mothers and Their Babies Addresses Longstanding Gap in Health Equity

by

The research team from left to right includes Kelsey Swingle, Hannah Safford, Alex Hamilton, Ajay Thatte, Hannah Geisler, and Mike Mitchell.

New research on reproductive health demonstrates the first successful delivery of mRNA to placental cells to treat pre-eclampsia at its root.

Pre-eclampsia is a leading cause of stillbirths and prematurity worldwide, occurring in 3 – 8 % of pregnancies. A disorder characterized by high maternal blood pressure, it results from insufficient vasodilation in the placenta, restricting blood flow from the mother to the fetus.

Currently, a health-care plan for someone with pre-eclampsia involves diet and movement changes, frequent monitoring, blood pressure management, and sometimes early delivery of the baby. These standards of care address symptoms of the condition, not the root cause, and further perpetuate health inequity.

Now, Penn engineers are addressing this longstanding gap in reproductive health care with targeted RNA therapy.

The COVID vaccines demonstrated how lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) efficiently deliver mRNA to target cells. The success of LNPs is opening doors for a variety of RNA therapies aiming to treat the root causes of illness and disease. However, drug development and health care have consistently neglected a portion of the population in need of targeted care the most – pregnant people and their babies.

Targeted Treatment for Pre-eclampsia. Current treatment: Early delivery. Results in high maternal blood pressure, restricted blood flow to the fetus. New treatment: Targeted RNA therapy and blood pressure monitoring. Strategically designed Lipid Nanoparticles deliver mRNA to placental cells. Vascular endothelial growth factor expands blood vessels, restores blood flow.In one of the first studies of its kind, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, and Kelsey Swingle, Ph.D. student in the Mitchell Lab and lead author, describe their development of an LNP with the ability to target and deliver mRNA to trophoblasts, endothelial cells, and immune cells in the placenta.

Once these cells receive the mRNA, they create vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), a protein that helps expand the blood vessels in the placenta to reduce the mother’s blood pressure and restore adequate circulation to the fetus. The researchers’ successful trials in mice may lead to promising treatments for pre-eclampsia in humans.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.