How a Diversity Program Enabled a Childhood Orthopaedics Patient’s Research Dreams

by Julie Wood

As a child, Sonal Mahindroo would go to her orthopaedics appointments with her family, slowly becoming more and more fascinated by the workings and conditions of the musculoskeletal system. While being treated for scoliosis, she would receive children’s books from her doctor that helped provide clear and simplified explanations of orthopaedic topics, which supported her interest.

Nearly a decade later, Mahindroo is still interested in expanding her orthopaedic knowledge, and a Penn Medicine program is helping fuel that expansion. Now a senior at St. Bonaventure University in New York, Mahindroo spends her time at the university’s lab. But in addition to that, this year, she was able to take part in more learning opportunities with Penn Medicine’s support, via the McKay Orthopaedic Research Lab’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee’s conference grant program.

McKay’s DEI committee — consisting of faculty, post-docs, graduate students, and staff — offers a welcoming environment and resources that support people of all identities, empowering them to bring forward unique perspectives to orthopaedic research.

“Our goal is to improve diversity and culture both within McKay and in the orthopaedic research community outside of Penn,” said Sarah Gullbrand, PhD, a research assistant professor at the McKay Lab. “We wanted to provide an opportunity for students to attend a conference and make connections to help them pursue their interest in orthopaedic research.”

The McKay conference grant supports undergraduate students who have been unable to get hands-on research experience. Participants are provided with the opportunity to network with leaders in the field of orthopaedic research, listen to cutting-edge research presentations, and learn about ways to get involved in orthopaedic research themselves.

“When launching the conference grant program earlier this year, I was motivated by my own experience attending a conference as an undergraduate. That experience really increased my interest in attending graduate school and taught me a lot about the breadth of research in orthopaedics,” said Hannah Zlotnick, a PhD student at the McKay Lab and member of the DEI committee. Through the McKay Conference Grants, the committee has supported two cohorts of students. “So far, we’ve been able to fund 11 undergraduate students from around the country to virtually attend orthopaedics conferences and receive early exposure to careers in STEM.”

Along with the conference grant, the McKay Lab holds workshops, book clubs, and other programs focused on DEI-related topics. As part of their efforts for promoting gender diversity in the field, the McKay Lab has previously partnered with the Perry Initiative to offer direct orthopaedic experiences for girls in high school, where they can learn how to suture, and perform mock fracture fixation surgeries on sawbones.

As a primarily male-populated field, orthopaedics could benefit greatly from diversity efforts. While women comprise approximately 50 percent of medical school graduates in the United States, they represent only 14 percent of orthopaedic surgery residents.

“The only women on staff at my orthopaedist’s office were receptionists. There were no female physicians or engineers to make my scoliosis brace,” Mahindroo said. “It was really cool coming to the McKay Lab and seeing how much the field has progressed since then.”

Read more at Penn Medicine News.

N.B. Hannah Zlotnick is a PhD student in Bioengineering studying in the lab of Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor in Bioengineering and Orthopaedic Surgery.

Claudia Loebel Appointed Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan

by Mahelet Asrat

Claudia Loebel, MD, PhD (Photo/Mel Evans)

The Department of Bioengineering is proud to congratulate Claudia Loebel, M.D., Ph.D. on her appointment as Assistant Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan. Loebel is part of the University of Michigan’s Biological Sciences Scholar program, which recruits junior instructional faculty in major areas of biomedical investigation. Loebel’s appointment will begin in Fall 2021.

Loebel got her M.D. in 2011 from Martin-Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, Germany and her Ph.D. in Health Sciences and Technology from ETH Zurich, Switzerland in 2016. There she worked under her advisors Professors Marcy Zenobi-Wong from ETH Zurich and David Eglin from AO Research Institute Davos. At Penn, she conducted postdoctoral research in the Polymeric Biomaterials Laboratory of Jason Burdick, Robert D. Bent Professor in Bioengineering, and as a Visiting Research Scholar in the Mauck Laboratory of the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory in the Perelman School of Medicine.

Loebel was awarded a K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which supports her remaining time as a postdoc as well as her time as an independent investigator at the University of Michigan. Loebel is excited about training the next generation of scientists and engineers and being part of their journey in becoming independent and diverse thinkers.

Loebel’s research area is inspired by the interface between material science and regenerative engineering and how it can address specific problems related to tissue development, repair, and regeneration. By developing mechanically and strucatally dynamic biomaterials, microfabrication, and matrix manipulation techniques her works aim to recreate complex cell-matrix interactions and model tissue morphogenesis and disease. The ultimate goal of her research is to use these engineered systems to develop and translate more effective therapeutic treatments for diseases such as fibrotic, inflammatory, and congenital disorders. Her lab’s work will initially focus on developing engineering lung alveolar organoids, aiming to build models of acute and chronic pulmonary diseases and for personalized medicine.

Loebel says, “I am grateful to all my Ph.D. and postdoc mentors for their continuous support and especially Jason who, over the last few years, has trained me in becoming an independent scientist and mentor. This transition would not have been possible without such a great mentor team behind me.”

Congratulations Dr. Loebel from everyone at Penn Bioengineering!

“New Biosealant Can Stabilize Cartilage, Promote Healing After Injury”

New research from Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor in Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering and Director of Penn Medicine’s McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory, announces a “new biosealant therapy may help to stabilize injuries that cause cartilage to break down, paving the way for a future fix or – even better – begin working right away with new cells to enhance healing.” Their research was published in Advanced Healthcare Materials. The study’s lead author was Jay Patel, a former postdoctoral fellow in the McKay Lab and now Assistant Professor at Emory University and was contributed to by Claudia Loebel, a postdoctoral research in the Burdick lab and who will begin an appointment as Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan in Fall 2021. In addition, the technology detailed in this publication is at the heart of a new company (Forsagen LLC) spun out of Penn with support from the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI) Ventures Program, which will attempt to spearhead the system’s entry into the clinic. It is co-founded by both Mauck and Patel, along with study co-author Jason Burdick, Professor in Bioengineering, and Ana Peredo, a PhD student in Bioengineering.

Read the story in Penn Medicine News.

Bioengineering Faculty Contribute to New Treatment That “Halts Osteoarthritis-Like Knee Cartilage Degeneration”

A recent study published in Science Translational Medicine announces a discovery which could halt cartilage degeneration caused by osteoarthritis: “These researchers showed that they could target a specific protein pathway in mice, put it into overdrive and halt cartilage degeneration over time. Building on that finding, they were able to show that treating mice with surgery-induced knee cartilage degeneration through the same pathway via the state of the art of nanomedicine could dramatically reduce the cartilage degeneration and knee pain.” This development could eventually lead to treating osteoarthritis with injection rather than more complicated surgery.

Among a team of Penn Engineering and Penn Medicine researchers, the study was co-written by Zhiliang Cheng, Research Associate Professor in Bioengineering, Andrew Tsourkas, Professor in Bioengineering, and Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor in Bioengineering and Orthopaedic Surgery. The lead author was Yulong Wei of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory.

Read the press release in Penn Medicine News.

Student Spotlight: Sonia Bansal

Sonia Bansal, Ph.D.

Next up in the Penn Bioengineering student spotlight series is Sonia Bansal. Sonia got her B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Columbia University in 2014. She then came to Penn, where she recently got her Ph.D. in September of 2020 in Bioengineering under the advisement of Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Professor of Bioengineering. Her dissertation is entitled “Functional and Structural Remodeling of the Meniscus with Growth and Injury” and focuses on the ways the knee meniscus changes while being actively loaded (growth) and under aberrant loading (injurious) conditions. She has presented her work internationally and has first authored four papers, with two more in preparation. She is passionate about K-12 STEM outreach and teaching at the collegiate level. She has been on the teaching team for six classes in the department, and is the first recipient of the Graduate Fellowship for Teaching Excellence from the Bioengineering department.

What drew you to the field of Bioengineering?
I first got interested in Bioengineering when I realized that it would let me merge my interests in biology and the human body with my desire to solve big questions by building and creating solutions. I applied to college knowing it was what I wanted to study.

What kind of research do you conduct, and what is the focus of your thesis?
My research is focused on the knee meniscus, specifically the impacts of its complex extracellular matrix and how that matrix changes during growth and after meniscal injury. My interests are largely translational, and in the future, I’d like to think about how we can use preclinical animal models to create effective therapeutics and drive clinical decision making in the orthopedic space.

What did you study for your undergraduate degree? How does it pair with the work you’re doing now, and what advice would you give to your undergraduate self?
I studied Biomedical Engineering during my undergraduate education and worked in cartilage tissue engineering. These experiences helped guide me to my Ph.D. work here at Penn. The two pieces of advice I’d give my undergraduate self is to ask for help and that it’s important to get more than five hours of sleep a night.

What’s your favorite thing to do on Penn’s campus or in Philly?
My favorite thing to do on campus was to read papers/write lectures/work on grants at a local coffee shop. I used to go to HubBub when it still existed, Saxby’s, and United By Blue.

Have you done or learned anything new or interesting during quarantine?
I have embarked on a journey in culinary fermentation (variety of pickles and sourdough, of course), and recently started homebrewing!

Magnetic Field and Hydrogels Could Be Used to Grow New Cartilage

by Frank Otto

MRI Knee joint or Magnetic resonance imaging sagittal view for detect tear or sprain of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

Using a magnetic field and hydrogels, a team of researchers in the Perelman School of Medicine have demonstrated a new possible way to rebuild complex body tissues, which could result in more lasting fixes to common injuries, such as cartilage degeneration. This research was published in Advanced Materials.

“We found that we were able to arrange objects, such as cells, in ways that could generate new, complex tissues without having to alter the cells themselves,” says the study’s first author, Hannah Zlotnick, a graduate student in bioengineering who works in the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory at Penn Medicine. “Others have had to add magnetic particles to the cells so that they respond to a magnetic field, but that approach can have unwanted long-term effects on cell health. Instead, we manipulated the magnetic character of the environment surrounding the cells, allowing us to arrange the objects with magnets.”

In humans, tissues like cartilage can often break down, causing joint instability or pain. Often, the breakdown isn’t in total, but covers an area, forming a hole. Current fixes are to fill those holes in with synthetic or biologic materials, which can work but often wear away because they are not the same exact material as what was there before. It’s similar to fixing a pothole in a road by filling it with gravel and making a tar patch: The hole will be smoothed out but eventually wear away with use because it’s not the same material and can’t bond the same way.

What complicates fixing cartilage or other similar tissues is that their makeup is complex.

“There is a natural gradient from the top of cartilage to the bottom, where it contacts the bone,” Zlotnick explains. “Superficially, or at the surface, cartilage has a high cellularity, meaning there is a higher number of cells. But where cartilage attaches to the bone, deeper inside, its cellularity is low.”

So the researchers, which included senior author Robert Mauck, PhD, director of the McKay Lab and a professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering, sought to find a way to fix the potholes by repaving them instead of filling them in. With that in mind, the research team found that if they added a magnetic liquid to a three-dimensional hydrogel solution, cells, and other non-magnetic objects including drug delivery microcapsules, could be arranged into specific patterns that mimicked natural tissue through the use of an external magnetic field.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.

Week in BioE (July 26, 2019)

by Sophie Burkholder

New 3D Tumor Models Could Improve Cancer Treatment

New ways of testing cancer treatments may now be possible thanks to researchers at the University of Akron who developed three-dimensional tumor models of triple-negative breast cancer. Led by Dr. Hossein Tavana, Ph. D., an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the university, the Tissue Engineering Microtechnologies Lab recently received a $1.13 million grant from the prestigious National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the National Institute of Health (NIH) to continue improving these tumor models. Tumors are difficult to fully replicate in vitro, as they are comprised of cancerous cells, connective tissue, and matrix proteins, among several other components. With this new grant, Tavana sees creating a high-throughput system that uses many identical copies of the tumor model for drug testing and better understanding of the way tumors operate. This high-throughput method would allow Tavana and his lab to isolate and test several different approaches at once, which they hope will help change the way tumors are studied and treated everywhere.

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss Poses Greater Threat to Neural Processing

Even though we all know we probably shouldn’t listen to music at high volumes, most of us typically do it anyway. But researchers at Purdue University recently found that noise-induced hearing loss could cause significant changes in neural processing of more complex sound inputs. Led by Kenneth Henry, Ph.D., an assistant professor of otolaryngology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and Michael Heinz, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical engineering at Purdue University, the study shows that when compared with age-related hearing loss, noise-induced hearing loss will result in a greater decrease in hearing perception even when the two kinds of hearing loss appear to be of the same degree on an audiogram. This is because noise-induced hearing loss occurs because of physical trauma to the ear, rather than the long-term electrochemical degradation of some components that come happen with age. The evidence of this research is yet another reason why we should be more careful about exposing our ears to louder volumes, as they pose a greater risk of serious damage.

Increasing the Patient Populations for Research in Cartilage Therapy and Regenration

Despite the great progress in research of knee cartilage therapy and regeneration, there are still issues with the patient populations that most studies consider. Researchers often want to test new methods on patients that have the greatest chance of injury recovery without complications – often referred to as “green knees” – but this leaves out those patient populations who suffer from conditions or defects that have the potential to cause complications – often referred to as “red knees.” In a new paper published in Regenerative Medicine, the Mary Black Ralston Professor for Education and Research in Orthopaedic Surgery and secondary faculty in the Department of Bioengineering at Penn, Robert Mauck, Ph.D., discusses some cartilage therapies that may be suitable for red knee populations.

Working with James Carey, M.D., the Director of the Penn Center for Cartilage Repair and Osteochondritis, Mauck and his research team realized that even those with common knee cartilage conditions such as the presence of lesions or osteoarthritis were liable to be excluded from most regeneration studies. In discussing alternatives methods and structures of studying cartilage repair and regeneration, Mauck and Carey hope that future therapies will be applicable to a wider range of patient populations, and that there will soon be more options beyond full joint replacement for those with red knee conditions.

Plant-Like Superhydrophobicity Has Applications in Biomedical Engineering

Researchers in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Texas A&M University recently found ways of incorporating the superhydrophobic properties of some plant leaves into biomedical applications through what they’re calling a “lotus effect.” The Gaharwar Lab, led by principal investigator and assistant professor of biomedical engineering Akhilesh Gaharwar, Ph.D., developed an assembly of two-dimensional atomic layers that they describe as a “nanoflower” to help control surface wetting in a biomedical setting. A recent paper published in Chemical Communications describes Gaharwar and his team’s work as expanding the use of superhydrophobic surface properties in biomedical devices by demonstrating the important role that atomic vacancies play in the wetting characteristic. While Gaharwar hopes to research the impact that controlling superhydrophobicity could have in stem cell applications, his work already allows for innovations in self-cleaning and surface properties of devices involving labs-on-a-chip and biosensing.

People and Places

Nader Engheta, H. Nedwill Ramsey Professor in Electrical and Systems Engineering, Bioengineering and Materials Science and Engineering, has been inducted into the Canadian Academy of Engineering (CAE) as an International Fellow. The CAE comprises many of Canada’s most accomplished engineers and Engheta was among the five international fellows that were inducted this year.

The Academy’s President Eddy Isaacs remarked: “Over our past 32 years, Fellows of Academy have provided insights in the fields of education, infrastructure, and innovation, and we are expecting the new Fellows to expand upon these contributions to public policy considerably.”

Read the full story on Penn Engineering’s Medium Blog. 

We would like to congratulate Anthony Lowman, Ph.D., on his appointment as the Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Rowan University. Formerly the Dean of Rowan’s College of Engineering, Lowman helped the college double in size, and helped foster a stronger research community. Lowman also helped to launch a Ph.D. program for the school, and added two new departments of Biomedical Engineering and Experiential Engineering Education in his tenure as the dean. Widely recognized for his research on hydrogels and drug delivery, Lowman was also formerly a professor of bioengineering at Temple University and Drexel University.

Lastly, we would like to congratulate Daniel Lemons, Ph.D., on his appointment as the Interim President of Lehman College of the City University of New York. Lemons, a professor in the Department of Biology at City College, specializes in cardiovascular and comparative physiology, and was also one of the original faculty members of the New York Center for Biomedical Engineering. With prior research funded by both the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), Lemons also holds patents in biomechanics teaching models and mechanical heart simulators.

 

Penn Bioengineers: Cells Control Their Own Fate by Manipulating Their Environment

by Lauren Salig

In these images, the researchers labeled new proteins white, and antibodies against other proteins in different colors. The co-localization of new proteins and antibodies show how cells can impact their local environments.

As different as muscle, blood, brain and skin cells are from one another, they all share the same DNA. Stem cells’ transformation into these specialized cells — a process called cell fate determination — is controlled through various signals from their surroundings.

A recent Penn Engineering study suggests that cells may have more control over their fate than previously thought.

Jason Burdick, Robert D. Bent Professor of Bioengineering, and Claudia Loebel, a postdoctoral researcher in his lab, led the study. Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor for Education and Research in Orthopaedic Surgery at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, also contributed to the research.

Their study was published in Nature Materials.

Read the full story in the Penn Engineering Medium Blog. Media contact Evan Lerner.

Week in BioE (March 15, 2019)

by Sophie Burkholder

Synthetic Spinal Discs from a Penn Research Team Might Be the Solution to Chronic Back Pain

Spinal discs, the concentric circles of collagen fiber found between each vertebra of the spine, can be the source of immense back pain when ruptured. Especially for truck and bus drivers, veterans, and cigarette smokers, there is an increased risk in spinal disc rupture due to overuse or deterioration over time. But these patients aren’t alone. In fact, spinal discs erode over time for almost everyone, and are one of the sources of back pain in older patients, especially when the discs erode so much that they allow direct bone-to-bone contact between two or more vertebrae.

Robert Mauck, Ph.D.

Robert Mauck, Ph.D., who is the director of the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory here at Penn and a member of the Bioengineering Graduate Group Faculty, led a research team in creating artificial spinal discs, with an outer layer made from biodegradable polymer and an inner layer made with a sugar-like gel. Their findings appear in Science Translational Medicine. These synthetic discs are also seeded with stem cells that produce collagen over time, meant to replace the polymer as it degrades in vivo over time. Though Mauck and his time are still far from human clinical trials for the discs, they’ve shown some success in goat models so far. If successful, these biodegradable discs could lead to a solution for back pain that integrates itself into the human body over time, potentially eliminating the need of multiple invasive procedures that current solutions require. Mauck’s work was recently featured in Philly.com.

An Untethered, Light-Activated Electrode for Innovations in Neurostimulation

Neurostimulation, a process by which nervous system activity can be purposefully modulated, is a common treatment for patients with some form of paralysis or neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease. This procedure is typically invasive, and because of the brain’s extreme sensitivity, even the slightest involuntary movement of the cables, electrodes, and other components involved can lead to further brain damage through inflammation and scarring. In an effort to solve this common problem, researchers from the B.I.O.N.I.C. Lab run by Takashi D.Y. Kozai, Ph. D., at the University of Pittsburgh replaced long cables with long wavelength light and a formerly tethered electrode with a smaller, untethered one.

The research team, which includes Pitt senior bioengineering and computer engineering student Kaylene Stocking, centered the device on the principle of the photoelectric effect – a concept first described in a publication by Einstein as the local change in electric potential for an object when hit with a photon. Their design, which includes a 7-8 micron diameter carbon fiber implant, is now patent pending, and Kozai hopes that it will lead to safer and more precise advancements in neurostimulation for patients in the future.

A New Microfluidic Chip Can Detect Cancer in a Drop of Blood

Many forms of cancer cannot be detected until the disease has progressed past the point of optimum treatment time, increasing the risk for patients who receive late diagnoses of these kinds of cancer. But what if the diagnostic process could be simplified and made more efficient so that even a single drop of blood could be enough input to detect the presence of cancer in a patient? Yong Zeng, Ph.D., and his team of researchers at the University of Kansas in Lawrence sought to answer that question.

They designed a self-assembled 3D-nanopatterned microfluidic chip to increase typical microfluidic chip sensitivity so that it can now detect lower levels of tumor-associated exosomes in patient blood plasma. This is in large part due to the nanopatterns in the structure of the chip, which promote mass transfer and increase surface area, which in turn promotes surface-particle interactions in the device. The team applied the device to their studies of ovarian cancer, one of the notoriously more difficult kinds of cancer to detect early on in patients.

A Wearable Respiration Monitor Made from Shrinky Dinks

Michelle Khine, Ph. D., a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of California, Irvine incorporates Shrinky Dinks into her research. After using them once before in a medical device involving microfluidics, her lab recently worked to incorporate them into a wearable respiration monitor – a device that would be useful for patients with asthma, cystic fibrosis, and other chronic pulmonary diseases. The device has the capability to track the rate and volume of its user’s respiration based on measurements of the strain at the locations where the device makes contact with the user’s abdomen.

Paired with Bluetooth technology, this sensor can feed live readings to a smartphone app, giving constant updates to users and doctors, as opposed to the typical pulmonary function test, which only provides information from the time at which the test takes a reading. Though Khine and her team have only tested the device on healthy patients so far, they look forward to testing with patients who have pulmonary disorders, in hopes that the device will provide more comprehensive and accessible data on their respiration.

People and Places

Ashley Kimbel, a high school senior from Grissom High School in Huntsville, Alabama, designed a lightweight prosthetic leg for local Marine, Kendall Bane, after an attack in Afghanistan led him to amputate one of his legs below the knee. Bane, who likes to keep as active as possible, said the new lighter design is more ideal for activities like hiking and mountain biking, especially as any added weight makes balance during these activities more difficult. Kimbel used a CAD-modeling software produced by Siemens called Solid Edge, which the company hopes to continue improving in accessibility so that more students can start projects like Kimbel’s.

This week, we would like to congratulate Angela Belcher, Ph.D., on being named the new head of the Department of Biological Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). With her appointment to this role, now half of the MIT engineering department heads are women. Belcher’s research is in the overlap of materials science and biological engineering, with a particular focus on creating nanostructures based on the evolution of ancient organisms for applications in medical diagnostics, batteries, solar cells, and more.

We would also like to congratulate Eva Dyer, Ph.D., and Chethan Pandarinath, Ph.D., both of whom are faculty members at the Walter H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, on receiving research fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Dr. Dyer, who formerly worked with Penn bioengineering faculty member Dr. Konrad Kording while he was at Northwestern University, leads research in the field of using data analysis methods to quantify neuroanatomy. Dr. Pandarinth leads the Emory and Georgia Tech Systems Neural Engineering Lab, where he works with a team of researchers to use properties of artificial intelligence and machine learning to better understand large neural networks in the brain.