In recent years, cancer researchers have hailed the arrival of chimeric antigen receptor T cell (CAR T) therapy, which has delivered promising results, transforming the fight against various forms of cancer. The process involves modifying patients’ T-cells to target cancer cells, resulting in remarkable success rates for previously intractable forms of cancer.
Six CAR T cell therapies have secured FDA approval, and several more are in the pipeline. However, these therapies come with severe and potentially lethal side effects, namely cytokine release syndrome (CRS) and neurotoxicity. These drawbacks manifest as a range of symptoms—from high fever and vomiting to multiple organ failure and patient death—posing significant challenges to broader clinical application.
“Addressing CRS and neurotoxicity without compromising the therapeutic effectiveness of CAR T cells has been a complex challenge,” says Mitchell.
He says that unwanted interactions between CAR T and immune cells called macrophages drive the overactivation of macrophages, which in turn result in the release of toxic cytokines that lead to CRS and neurotoxicity.
“Controlling CAR T-macrophage interactions in vivo is difficult,” Mitchell says. “So, our study introduces a materials engineering-based strategy that involves incorporating a sugar molecule onto the surface of CAR T cells. These sugars are then used as a reactive handle to create a biomaterial coating around these cells directly in the body, which acts as a ‘suit of armor,’ preventing dangerous interactions with macrophages.”
First author Ningqiang Gong, a postdoctoral researcher in the Mitchell Lab, elaborates on the technique, “We attached this sugar molecule to the CAR T cells using metabolic labeling. This modification enables the CAR T cells to attack cancer cells without any hindrance.”
“When symptoms of CRS begin to manifest, we introduce another molecule—polyethylene glycol (PEG)—to create the suit of armor, which effectively blocks dangerous interactions between these engineered T cells, macrophages, and the tumor cells themselves,” Gong says.
“During my training, I saw that there was overlap where I could do clinical work and science at the same time, and so that’s what I’ve been doing ever since,” Vining says. “As far back as middle school, I always wanted to be a biomedical engineer, and then the clinical side became interesting to me because I didn’t want to only do the theoretical or research side of things. I also wanted the hands-on, practical interaction of a skilled profession.”
The benefits of a dual career: Variety and opportunities to give back
Vining finds that wearing two hats offers the best of both worlds: opportunities to help both individual patients and to contribute to scientific and clinical progress.
“On the dentistry side, what I enjoy is getting to see patients, solving clinical problems, and trying to perform the best treatment I can; it has this rapid pace, which is kind of exciting and keeps you motivated,” Vining says. “And then research allows me to explore my interests and think about making an impact more broadly, not just in dentistry, but in medicine or in the world in general.”
Vining says dental school was demanding, yet a good time to explore his varied interests. He says he’d encourage others to pursue dentistry with an interdisciplinary approach. “Having exposure to different fields or different knowledge while you’re a student is really good for students and the profession in general,” he says.
The path towards a dual career
Vining first delved into research as a biomedical engineering undergraduate at Northwestern University. “I had the opportunity to work in a materials science lab studying the chemistry of surfaces. We would use molecules to modify the properties and surfaces that environments or cells could interact with,” he says.
Then, as a student at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, Vining realized that this same materials science research had many applications in dentistry. While in dental school, Vining conducted independent research in a materials science lab and also took the opportunity to do a yearlong fellowship in a cell and developmental biology lab at the National Institutes of Health.
Vining credits this fellowship with launching him towards a Ph.D., which he completed in bioengineering at Harvard in 2020. After earning his Ph.D., Vining conducted research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute prior to joining Penn.
Using biomaterials to understand how cells and tissues interact
Vining’s research at Penn aims to understand how the biophysical properties of materials impact cellular processes such as inflammation and fibrosis.
“Fibrosis is a physical change in tissues that produces a scar-like matrix that can inhibit healing, impair cancer treatment, and in general is not compatible with tissues regeneration,” Vining says. “There’s been a lot of effort on antifibrotic drugs, but we’re trying to look at fibrosis a little bit differently. Instead of directly inhibiting fibrosis, we’re trying to understand its consequences for the immune system because the immune system can be hijacked and become detrimental for your tissues.”
Through a better understanding the feedback loop between fibrotic tissue and the immune system, Vining hopes to design interventions to facilitate wound healing and tissue remodeling during restorative dental procedures and for treating diseases including head and neck cancer.
He’s also investigating how biomaterials like the resin used in tooth fillings interact with dental tissues. “Dental fillings rely on decades-old technologies that have been grandfathered in and contain toxic monomers that are not safe for biological systems,” Vining says. “We found a biocompatible resin chemistry that supports cells in vitro, and we’re trying to apply this to new types of dental fillings that promote repair or generation of dental tissues.”
Fostering interdisciplinary collaborations at Penn
“Dr. Vining is an ideal fit for the vision and mission of the CiPD,” says Penn Dental’s Hyun (Michel) Koo, co-founder and co-director of the CiPD. “With a secondary appointment in the School of Engineering, he will be instrumental in continuing to strengthen our engineering collaborations and teaching our students to work across disciplines to advance research, training, and entrepreneurship in this realm.”
Ultimately, Vining says it was Penn’s scientific community and the opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations that drew him here.
“It was very apparent that there were a lot of potential research paths to pursue here and a lot of opportunities for collaborations,” Vining says. “One of the most exciting things for me so far has been meeting with faculty, whether it’s at Penn Medicine, the School of Engineering, Wharton, Penn Dental, or the Veterinary School. These meetings have already opened up new projects and collaborations.”
The collaboration sparked when Vining saw Mitchell present on a new technology that uses lipid nanoparticles to bind and target bone marrow cells at the 2022 CiPD first annual symposium. “It got me thinking because the dentin inside of teeth is a mineralized tissue very similar to bone, and the pulp inside the dentin is analogous to bone marrow tissue,” Vining says.
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.
Nader Engheta was puzzled when he got a call from the psychology department about a fish.
In the early 1990s, Engheta, a newly minted associate professor of electrical engineering in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, was a respected expert in radio wave technologies. But in recent years, his work had been expanding into subjects at once more eccentric and fundamental.
Engheta’s interest in electromagnetic waves was not limited to radio frequencies, as a spate of fresh publications could attest. Some studies investigated a range of wave interactions with a class of matter known as a “chiral media,” materials with molecular configurations that exhibit qualities of left or right “handedness.” Others established practical electromagnetic applications for a bewildering branch of mathematics called “fractional calculus,” an area with the same Newtonian roots as calculus proper but a premise as eyebrow-raising as the suggestion a family might literally include two-and-a-half children.
Electromagnetic waves are organized on a spectrum of wavelengths. On the shorter end of the spectrum are high-energy waves, such as X-rays. In the middle, there is the limited range we see as visible light. And on the longer end are the lower-energy regimes of radio and heat.
Researchers tend to focus on one kind of wave or one section of the spectrum, exploring quirks and functions unique to each. But all waves, electromagnetic or not, share the same characteristics: They consist of a repeating pattern with a certain height (amplitude), rate of vibration (frequency), and distance between peaks (wavelength). These qualities can define a laser beam, a broadcasting voice, a wind-swept lake, or a violin string.
Engheta has never been the kind of scholar to limit the scope of his curiosity to a single field of research. He is interested in waves, and his fascination lies equally in the physics that determine wave behavior and the experimental technologies that push the boundaries of those laws.
So, when Edward Pugh, a mathematical psychologist studying the physiology of visual perception, explained that green sunfish might possess an evolutionary advantage for seeing underwater, Engheta listened.
Soon, the two Penn professors were pouring over microscope images of green sunfish retinas.
Read Devorah Fischler’s full story about Nader Engheta and watch an accompanying video at Penn Today.
Nader Engheta is H. Nedwill Ramsey Professor of Electrical and Systems Engineering at Penn Engineering, with secondary appointments in the departments of Bioengineering, Materials Science and Engineering, and Physics and Astronomy in the School of Arts & Sciences.
“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.”
The symposium, titled “Sculpting Waves with Complex Materials,” explored the richness and breadth of Engheta’s impact.
In a glass-paneled lecture hall nestled between flowering dogwoods and limber pines, speakers attested to Engheta’s technical acumen and intellectual creativity, describing his pathbreaking work in light-matter interaction.
Andrea Alù, Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York, Einstein Professor of Physics at the Graduate Center, CUNY and former Penn Engineering postdoctoral fellow, cited Engheta as “one of the original pioneers of the field of complex electromagnetic structures and modern metamaterials,” and the “father” of four influential fields: analog computing with metamaterials, plasmonic cloaking, non-zero-index metamaterials and optical nanocircuits.
Two faculty affiliated with the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania have been elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. They join nearly 270 new members honored in 2023, recognized for their excellence, innovation, leadership, and broad array of accomplishments.
Nader Engheta is the H. Nedwill Ramsey Professor, with affiliations in the departments of Electrical and Systems Engineering (primary appointment), Bioengineering (secondary appointment) and Materials Science and Engineering (secondary appointment) in the School of Engineering and Applied Science; and Physics and Astronomy (secondary appointment) in the School of Arts & Sciences. His current research activities span a broad range of areas including optics, photonics, metamaterials, electrodynamics, microwaves, nano-optics, graphene photonics, imaging and sensing inspired by eyes of animal species, microwave and optical antennas, and physics and engineering of fields and waves. He has received numerous awards for his research, including the 2023 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering, the 2020 Isaac Newton Medal and Prize from the Institute of Physics (U.K.), the 2020 Max Born Award from OPTICA (formerly OSA), induction to the Canadian Academy of Engineering as an International Fellow (2019), U.S. National Academy of Inventors (2015), and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor from the Ellis Island Honors Society (2019). He joins four other Penn faculty elected to the Academy this year.
Read the announcement and the full list of Penn electees in Penn Today.
Susan Margulies, Professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech, was also elected. Margulies is both Professor Emeritus in Penn Bioengineering and an alumna of the program, having earned her Ph.D. with the department in 1987. Margulies is an expert in pediatric traumatic brain injury and lung injury. She previously served as Chair of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech/Emory University and in 2021 became the first biomedical engineer selected to lead the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate of Engineering.
Read the announcement of Margulies’ elected to the Academy at Georgia Tech.
Interim Provost Beth A. Winkelstein has announced the appointment of Russell J. Composto as Faculty Co-Director of Penn First Plus (P1P), beginning July 1, 2023. Composto is currently Professor of Materials Science and Engineering with secondary appointments in Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Howell Family Faculty Fellow, and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in Penn Engineering.
“Russ Composto has long been one of our campus leaders in advancing support and mentoring for our students,” said Interim Provost Winkelstein, “including new programs for student wellness, community service, and research and mentoring for first-generation and/or low-income students. He is one of the leaders of our exciting new initiative to increase inclusivity in STEM education at Penn, which just received a major six-year grant from the Inclusive Excellence initiative of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Within Penn Engineering, he led the development of a new engineering curriculum and a new program of individualized student advising, both of which have been highly successful in enhancing the academic experiences of our undergraduates.
“I am extremely grateful to Robert Ghrist for his longstanding dedication to Penn’s undergraduates and his leadership over the past five years as an inaugural Faculty Co-Director of P1P, as well as to ongoing Faculty Co-Director Camille Charles, Executive Director Marc Lo, and the outstanding P1P staff and extended team for their work in sustaining P1P’s invaluable mission on our campus.”
Penn First Plus, founded in 2018, provides support, resources and community-building for undergraduate students who identify as lower- to middle-income and/or are the first in their families to attend college. It includes the Shleifer Family Penn First Plus Center in College Hall and the Pre-First Year Program, an intensive four-week summer program for select incoming first-year students, preceding New Student Orientation, that offers comprehensive support services which continue throughout students’ undergraduate experiences at Penn.
Composto has served as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in Penn Engineering since 2015. In more than thirty years at Penn, he has also served as both Undergraduate Chair and Graduate Group Chair of Materials Science and Engineering and has been awarded the Provost’s Award for Distinguished Ph.D. Teaching and Mentoring, the Geoffrey Marshall Mentoring Award of the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools, and the Ford Motor Company Award for Faculty Advising.
He is a world-leading pioneer of polymer science who is a Fellow and former Chair of the Division of Polymer Physics of the American Physical Society, has received a Special Creativity Award from the National Science Foundation, and recently became Co-Director of a major NSF-funded initiative to bring together soft matter, data science, and science policy as part of the NSF Research Traineeship Program, which encourages transformative models for training of STEM graduate students, especially in new, high-priority interdisciplinary research areas. He received a Ph.D. and M.S. from Cornell University and a B.A. in Physics from Gettysburg College.
University of Pennsylvania scientist Nader Engheta has been selected as a 2023 recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Medal, one of the world’s oldest science and technology awards. The laureates will be honored on April 27 at a ceremony at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.
Engheta, H. Nedwill Ramsey Professor in Electrical and Systems Engineering, is among nine outstanding individuals recognized with Benjamin Franklin Medals this year for their achievements in extraordinary scientific, engineering and business leadership.
“As a scientist and a Philadelphian, I am deeply honored and humbled to receive the Franklin Medal. It is the highest compliment to receive an award whose past recipients include some of my scientific heroes such as Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, and Max Planck. I am very thankful to the Franklin Institute for bestowing this honor upon me.”
Larry Dubinski, President and CEO of The Franklin Institute, says, “We are proud to continue The Franklin Institute’s longtime legacy of recognizing individuals for their contributions to humanity. These extraordinary advancements in areas of such importance as social equity, sustainability, and safety are significantly moving the needle in the direction of positive change and therefore laying the groundwork for a remarkable future.”
The 2023 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering goes to Engheta for his transformative innovations in engineering novel materials that interact with electromagnetic waves in unprecedented ways, with broad applications in ultrafast computing and communication technologies.
“Professor Engheta’s pioneering work in metamaterials and nano-optics points the way to new and truly revolutionary computing capabilities in the future,” says University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill. “Penn inaugurated the age of computers by creating the world’s first programmable digital computer in 1945. Professor Engheta’s work continues this tradition of groundbreaking research and discovery that will transform tomorrow. We are thrilled to see him receive the recognition of the Benjamin Franklin Medal.”
Engheta founded the field of optical nanocircuits (“optical metatronics”), which merges nanoelectronics and nanophotonics. He is also known for establishing and& developing the field of near-zero-index optics and epsilon-near-zero (ENZ) materials with near-zero electric permittivity. Through his work he has opened many new frontiers, including optical computation at the nanoscale and scattering control for cloaking and transparency. His work has far-reaching implications in various branches of electrical engineering, materials science, optics, microwaves, and quantum electrodynamics.
“This award recognizes Dr. Engheta’s trailblazing advances in engineering and physics,” says Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering.“ The swift and sustainable technologies his research in metamaterials and metatronics offers the world are the result of a lifelong commitment to scientific curiosity. For over 35 years, Nader Engheta has personified Penn Engineering’s mission of inventing the future.”
Nader Engheta is the H. Nedwill Ramsey Professor in the Departments of Electrical and Systems Engineering and Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and professor of physics and astronomy in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.
In a recent study published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, the team detailed what they found when they closely observed the nucleus of cells inside connective tissues deteriorating as a result of tendinosis, which is the chronic condition that results from a tendon repeatedly suffering small injuries that don’t heal correctly. Using the latest super-resolution imaging techniques, they found that the tendon cells involved in maintaining the tissue’s structure in a diseased microenvironment improperly reorder their chromatin — the DNA-containing material that chromosomes are composed of — when attempting to repair.
This and other findings highlighted in the report point to the possibility of new treatments, such as small-molecule therapies, that could restore order to the affected cells.
“Interestingly, we were able to explain the role of mechanical forces on the 3-D organization of chromatin by developing a theory that integrates fundamental thermodynamic principles (physics) with the kinetics of epigenetic regulation (biology),” said study co-author and CEMB Director Vivek Shenoy in a news release from Penn Medicine News.
The CEMB, one of 18 active interdisciplinary research centers funded by the National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology Center (STC) program, brings together dozens of researchers from Penn Engineering and the Perelman School of Medicine, as well as others spread across campus and at partner institutions around the world.
With its funding recently renewed for another five years, the CEMB has entered into a new phase of its mission, centered on the nascent concept of “mechanointelligence,” which is exemplified by studies like this one. While mechanobiology is the study of the physical forces that govern the behavior of cells and their communication with their neighbors, mechanointelligence adds another layer of complexity: attempting to understand the forces that allow cells to sense, remember and adapt to their environments.
Ultimately, harnessing these forces would allow researchers to help multicellular organisms — plants, animals and humans — better adapt to their environments as well.