Neurology, bioengineering, and physical medicine and rehabilitation might not seem like three disciplines that fit together, but for Flavia Vitale, an assistant professor of all three, it makes perfect sense. As the director and principal investigator at the Vitale Lab, her research focuses on developing new technologies that help to study how the brain and neuromuscular systems function.
Years ago, while she was working at Rice University developing new materials and devices that work in the body in a safer, more effective way, former president Barack Obama launched the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, aimed at revolutionizing the understanding of the human brain. This emphasis on how little is known about brain structure and function inspired Vitale to refocus her research on developing technology and materials that will help researchers solve the mysteries of the brain.
In 2018, she joined the faculty at the Perelman School of Medicine as an assistant professor of neurology, bioengineering, and physical medicine and rehabilitation, and founded the multidisciplinary Vitale Lab, where her team develops cutting edge materials and devices that will someday help clinicians diagnose and treat patients with complicated brain and neurological conditions. She is also one of the engineers looking forward to using new combined clinical/research facilities in neuroscience at Penn Medicine’s new Pavilion where new neurotechnoloigies will be developed and tested.
“My main goal is to create tools that can help solve mysteries of the brain, and address the needs of clinicians,” she says.
“My lab was recently awarded two grants totaling $4.5 million from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. In order to obtain more precise insights, noninvasively, into brain activity to improve gene therapy treatments for a range of diagnoses, from Parkinson’s disease to glioblastoma. The first grant is designated for the development of a novel surgical device for delivering gene-based therapeutics to the brain. The second is for optimization and pre-clinical validation of a novel EEG electrode technology, which uses a soft, flexible, conductive nanomaterial rather than metal and gels. We hope to confirm that these technologies work as well as, if not better than existing ones.”
A.T. Charlie Johnson, Rebecca W. Bushnell Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the Penn School of Arts & Sciences, and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group has been working with a team of researchers on a new “electronic nose” that could help track the spread of COVID-19 based on the disease’s unique odor profile. Now, similar research shows that vapors emanating from blood samples can be tested to distinguish between benign and cancerous pancreatic and ovarian cells. Johnson presented the results at the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting on June 4 (Abstract # 5544):
“It’s an early study but the results are very promising,” Johnson said. “The data shows we can identify these tumors at both advanced and the earliest stages, which is exciting. If developed appropriately for the clinical setting, this could potentially be a test that’s done on a standard blood draw that may be part of your annual physical.”
Katherine (Katie) Reuther, Ph.D., M.B.A. will return to Penn Engineering in July 2021 as the new Executive Director of Penn Health-Tech (PHT) and as Practice Associate Professor in Bioengineering. Reuther is an alumna of Penn Bioengineering, having obtained her Ph.D. at Penn in the laboratory of Louis Soslowsky, Fairhill Professor in Bioengineering and Orthopaedic Surgery.
“Dr. Reuther is a role model for biomedical innovation, linking formal training in engineering and entrepreneurship with deep practical experience in leading technologies through the commercialization pipeline. Dr. Reuther graduated with her Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering, Magna cum Laude, from the College of New Jersey; she obtained her Ph.D. in Bioengineering at Penn in the laboratory of Dr. Louis Soslowsky and completed her MBA at Columbia, where she currently is a Senior Lecturer in Design, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. During her tenure at Columbia, Dr. Reuther helped create and led Columbia’s Biomedical Engineering Technology Accelerator (BiomedX), overseeing more than 60 technologies leading to $80M in follow-on funding and 18 licenses to start-ups or start-ups industry. Introducing both new courses and a new curriculum in biomedical innovation, Dr. Reuther was recently awarded Columbia’s highest teaching honor, the ‘2021 Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching,’ this Spring as a recognition of her excellence in teaching and dedication to students.
Katie has extensive experience in developing and translating early-stage medical technologies and discoveries and providing formal educational training for aspiring medical entrepreneurs. Dr. Reuther served as Director of Masters’ Studies for the Department of Biomedical Engineering and spearheaded the development of a graduate-level medical innovation program, including an interdisciplinary course available to scientists, engineers, and clinicians. Dr. Reuther provided advising and educational support to more than 100 student/faculty teams and start-ups, as they worked to develop and commercialize medical technologies. She will bring these extensive skills to PHT and Penn Bioengineering in two new, hands-on graduate courses in medical innovation centered around Penn Health-Tech ventures.”
Each Penn Bioengineering (BE) student’s undergraduate experience culminates in Senior Design, a two-semester capstone project in which student teams conceive, design, and develop a bioengineering project, whether a medical device, molecular biological therapeutic, or research tool. Projects are inherently interdisciplinary, and can involve biomaterials, electronics, mechanics, molecular biology, nanotechnology, and microfluidics. Research and development is supervised by BE faculty, lab staff, and graduate student TA’s and project managers, and work is conducted in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace (which successfully reopened for in-person activities this Spring semester).
This year’s 11 teams included the variety and innovation we’ve come to expect from our outstanding students, ranging from devices which track medical conditions, such afib and POTS, to technology responding to our post-COVID world, such as a disinfecting robot and a kit to make telemedicine more effective. The year finished with presentations to alumni judges, and BE’s annual Demo Day (the only in-person demo day on the engineering campus this year) on April 15, 2021, in which students showcased their designs to faculty.
Several teams were highlighted for awards recognition.
Tula won the Grand Prize Award at the Weiss Tech House Senior Design Pitch competition, sponsored by Penn’s Weiss Tech House, as well as a Berkman Opportunity Fund grant from Penn Engineering. Tula’s members are Bioengineering student Shreya Parchure (BSE 2021 & MSE 2021), Mechanical Engineering student Miriam Glickman (BSE 2021 & MSE 2022), and Computer Science students Ebtihal Jasim (BSE 2021) and Tiffany Tsang (BSE 2021).
TelemedTree (David Alanis Garza, Aurora Cenaj & Raveen Kariyawasam) and rUmVA (Yasmina Al Ghadban, Rachel Madhogarhia, Jeong Inn Park, Robert Paslaski & Phuong Vu) also received Berkman Opportunity Fund grants.
RHO Therapeutics was named a finalist in the Rice 360 Design Competition for 2021 (David Bartolome, Ethan Boyer, Patrisia de Anda, Kelly Feng & Jenny Nguyen).
In addition, three teams won BE’s internal Senior Design competition: IdentiFly (MEAM student Armando Cabrera, ESE student Ethan Chaffee, MEAM student Zachary Lane, ESE student Nicoleta Manu & BE student Abum Okemgbo), OtoAI, and rUmVa.
Short descriptions of each project are below. See each project’s full abstract, final paper, and video presentation here. The full 2021 presentation Youtube playlist is linked below.
reActive is a low-cost wearable device that measures ground reaction force as well as knee angle to aid physical therapists in quantifying an athlete’s recovery from an ACL injury.
EndoMagno is a novel magnetic endoscopy probe that effectively grips metallic objects by interfacing with an endoscope.
NoFib is an at-home wearable for athletes with histories of atrial fibrillation or those recovering from ablation surgeries who wish to continue their workout regimen and track their cardiac recovery without needing to leave their residence.
Tula is a smart compression stocking platform to improve quality of life for people with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), a disease which causes fainting upon standing due to blood pooling in legs. Tula can predict a POTS attack through real-time heart rate monitoring and then prevent fainting using dynamic compression.
RHO Therapeutics is a low-cost, wearable glove device that trains fine motor movements using a rehabilitative game that causes motor-mediated flexion and extension of the patient’s hand to aid in chronic stroke rehabilitation.
EarForce aims to monitor fighter pilots’ health during training and in-flight missions via a low-cost headphone system. The device collects physiological data through the ear and is compatible with existing pilot headphone systems.
IdentiFly is a low-cost device which will provide labs with an easy to integrate way to automatically sort fruit flies by sex.
TeleMedTree introduces a new level of telemedicine. It is an affordable precision-focused, at-home diagnostic kit to help immunocompromised individuals with respiratory conditions receive a high quality monitoring of their health that is on par or better than what is possible during an in-person visit.
OtoAI is a novel digital otoscope that enables primary care physicians to take images of the inner ear and leverages machine learning to diagnose abnormal ear pathologies.
Synchro-Sense is a device which detects when patients on ventilators are at maximum inhalation and triggers an X-ray image capture for accuracy.
rUmVa is a cost-effective, autonomous robot that can quickly disinfect rooms by intelligently sanitizing high-touch surfaces and the air.
Danielle Rossi earned her M.S.E. in Bioengineering in December 2018 and is now a R&D Leadership and Development Program Engineer with Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices. Here she reminisces about her research opportunities at Penn and her fond memories of Philly.
“When I first started at Penn, I was amazed by all of the opportunities to learn, to challenge myself, to network, and to innovate. My time at Penn was filled with interesting classes, dedicated faculty, challenging problems to solve, and collaboration. From writing a mock NIH research grant for a tissue engineered Intervertebral Disk in BE 553, to designing an electromechanical device controlled with muscle movement in BE 570, to writing up a business plan and pitching to investors in EAS 546, every new day came with a new venture.
On top of the exciting classes and projects, Penn has numerous research labs and healthcare facilities so that students can apply their skills to real-world problems. While I was a student, I had the opportunity to work at the Abramson Cancer Center in the Cancer Risk Evaluation Program. The program focused on patient risk evaluations, including genetic testing for certain cancers such as breast, ovarian, and sarcoma. This exposed me to the healthcare environment and gave me a new perspective on preemptive medicine.
During my free time, I loved to tour the historically and culturally rich city of Philadelphia. I have the fondest memories of exploring the city with my BE friends and storming the Philly streets when the Eagles won the Super Bowl!
While at Penn, I was sure to utilize Career Services to help me spruce up my resume and interview skills. I was lucky enough to meet with Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices at a Penn career fair and was offered a spot in the R&D Leadership and Development Program. The program allows me to rotate through three different J&J Medical Device companies as an R&D Engineer to gain exposure to new product development, mechanical design, computational modeling, manufacturing, design quality and more. ”
This post is part of BE’s Alumni Spotlight series. Read more testimonies from BE Alumni on the BE website.
The process of discovery sometimes starts with a hunch. Maria Ovando arrived at Penn Engineering with an affinity for math and science, extensive experience volunteering at her local health clinic and an assumption that she was preparing for a career in medicine. She was drawn to Penn Engineering because of the flexibility in the curriculum and the ability to both tailor her course of study and pursue cross-disciplinary subjects.
As a pre-med student, bioengineering seemed to be the natural choice for a major, but during her freshman year, Ovando found that she genuinely enjoyed bioengineering as a discipline in its own right, and only then did her future goals come into view.
“I’ve discovered that I have a passion for research, working on low-cost devices that can have a direct impact on individuals,” she says.
One of the most important opportunities she’s had at Penn is her work with Dr. Michelle J. Johnson at the Rehabilitation Robotics Lab in the Perelman School of Medicine. There, Ovando has been working to improve aspects of the Community-based Affordable Robot Exercise System, which helps stroke patients with lower extremity impairment. She’s also worked on a project that involved analyzing and reevaluating data in the early detection of cerebral palsy in infants. As an undergraduate, she found it both meaningful and moving to have a role in this groundbreaking research.
Data show that healthcare disparities plague the Black community in America, making it harder to receive adequate treatment and care. But rather than just accepting the status quo, Ruby Washington, senior in the Department of Bioengineering, is dedicated to leveraging her interest in biomedicine to change outcomes and systems.
“I feel that I have a duty to help my community and make the healthcare system better for people who look like me,” she says.
That’s a challenge well suited to a woman who is both fascinated by the intersection of materials science and biology and dedicated to representing and leading a community of Black engineers.
Lamis Elsawah graduated with a B.S.E. in Bioengineering with a concentration in Medical Devices in 2019. She is currently a Design Engineer at Johnson & Johnson’s DePuy Synthes. We caught up with Lamis to hear about why she chose Penn Bioengineering and what she enjoyed about the curriculum.
“Penn had been my dream school for years prior to even applying to college, so their having a top notch bioengineering program was icing on the cake when it was time for me to apply. Prior to applying, I actually had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Meaney (who was the Bioengineering Department Chair up until I graduated) the summer before my senior year in high school and he was always a constant support throughout my bioengineering education up until graduation. Since Bioengineering had less than 100 students per class, it really allowed us to develop that familial feel with our core Bioengineering professors and lab staff. I honestly don’t think I would have survived junior and senior year without the help of Sevile and the entire lab staff, so I will be forever grateful.
I always like to say that junior year labs are really what made me an engineer. Those were some of the most challenging classes I took, but it was really rewarding once I reached the end. Between those lab courses and Biomechatronics taught by Professor Dourte, it prepared me to become a design engineer and apply all that I had learned. I also had the opportunity to get my minor in Engineering Entrepreneurship and be taught by Professor Cassel, which increased my interest in the business side of developing medical devices. The combination of my studies ultimately led me to Imperial College, London where I received my Master’s in Medical Device Design and Entrepreneurship.
The bioengineering curriculum at Penn allowed me to have a vast knowledge of the field that I will always be grateful for. It not only provided me with the mechanical experience, but also the electrical and biological background. I plan on staying an active alumna in both the Engineering Alumni Society and the Penn Alumni Board as a result of my wonderful experience at Penn Engineering and Penn as a whole.”
This post is part of BE’s Alumni Spotlight series. Read more testimonies from BE Alumni on the BE website.
Brian Litt, professor in Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering and the Perelman School of Medicine’s departments of Neurology and Neurosurgery, has received a five-year, $5.6 million Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health, which will support his research on implantable devices for monitoring, recording and responding to neural activity.
The Pioneer Award is part of the agency’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program honoring exceptionally creative scientists. It challenges investigators to pursue new research directions and develop groundbreaking, high-impact approaches to a broad area of biomedical or behavioral science. Litt’s neurodevice research represents a new frontier in addressing a wide variety of neurological conditions.
In epilepsy, for example, these devices would predict and prevent seizures; in Parkinson’s patients, implants will measure and communicate with patients to improve mobility, reduce tremor and enhance responsiveness. Other implants might improve hearing or psychiatric symptoms by querying patient perceptions, feelings, and altering stimulation patterns algorithmically to improve them
Given the closing of schools in response to the coronavirus pandemic, professors teaching lab-based courses were forced to make some changes. One such course, the Department of Bioengineering’s Medical Device Development (BE 472) taught by Matthew R. Maltese, Ph.D., usually requires students to develop a medical device and learn how to lead a startup venture for it. Over the semester, students design prototypes for unmet needs in the medical device community, and then go on to learn about business-related aspects of the project, like fundraising, regulations, teamwork, and leadership. Maltese often encourages junior engineering students to take the course, in the hopes that their projects might become launchpads for their senior design projects the following year.
But with the pandemic’s interruptions to education restricting access to the lab, or even to some of the schematics for their earlier designs, Maltese’s Spring 2020 students had to re-focus on the business side of their projects.
Fortunately, the shift to online learning came late enough in the semester that most students had already come up with solid project ideas. Maltese then shifted gears to the less hands-on parts of the course. “There’s lots of elements to this course that are not focused on putting hands on hardware,” he says. “They’re focused on distilling and disseminating information about your endeavor to people that are interested.”
While some of those more hands-off assignments originally had some face-to-face aspects, like the final pitch competition, they’re also easy to transition to an online format. Maltese had students record videos of their pitches, which he notes is perhaps more akin to what they might have to do for external pitch competitions. And even though students couldn’t make their physical prototypes, Maltese says that they were all able to make virtual prototypes through CAD or other modeling software.
In his opinion, this renewed focus on out-of-lab prototype models might be a good thing for real-world experience. Investors and stakeholders often want the full picture of a device or startup before they even have to start working with physical material, for the sake of cost efficiency.
Students had already been working on their projects for a couple of months before the pandemic started to affect classes, so most of them stuck to their original ideas instead of adapting them to meet the needs of the current medical crisis. “Next year, I think we’re going to focus the class on COVID-19 ideas though,” says Maltese.
In fact, Medical Device Development will likely be one of many Penn Bioengineering courses that adapts its curriculum to the challenges the pandemic presented. “As a medical device community, a pharmaceutical community, a healthcare community, we were not ready for this,” Maltese notes, “but history teaches us that some of our greatest innovations emerge from our greatest trials.” He is excited for the future.