“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 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.
Dissertation: “Ionizable Lipid Nanoparticles for mRNA CAR T Cell Engineering”
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.”
Dissertation: “Designing Hyaluronic Acid Granular Hydrogels for Biomaterials Applications”
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.”
Dissertation: “Characterizing Medial Temporal Lobe Neurodegeneration Due to Tau Pathology in Alzheimer’s Disease Using Postmortem Imaging”
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.”
Dissertation: “Remote Force Guided Assembly of Complex Orthopaedic Tissues”
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!
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.
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.
Engineers in the Center for Precision Engineering for Health (CPE4H) are focusing on innovations in diagnostics and delivery, cellular and tissue engineering, and the development of new devices that integrate novel materials with human tissues. Below is an excerpt from “Going Small to Win Big: Engineering Personalized Medicine,” featuring the research from the laboratory of Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering.
Solid tumors evade the immune system’s ability to attack them in part due to the tumors’ tough, fibrous biological barriers that circulating immune cells can’t cross. Researchers need to identify ways to deliver individualized treatments that can better target these tumors without causing damage to healthy tissues or affecting overall quality of life.
The Status Quo
Current cancer treatments typically involve surgery, radiation or chemo- therapy to eliminate solid tumors. These treatments are invasive and can cause numerous negative downstream effects. Newer treatments involve engineering a patient’s immune system to recognize and fight cancerous cells, but are so far only effective against certain “liquid” cancers, where the mutated cells circulate freely in the blood and bone marrow and are small enough to be picked off by the patient’s upgraded T cells. Additionally, existing methods can also require that the cell engineering take place in a lab rather than directly inside the body.
The Mitchell Lab’s Fix
Members of the lab of Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, are looking to utilize nanoparticle delivery technology developed by their lab to engineer a different type of immune cell, the macrophage, in order to fight solid- tumor cancers from the inside.
The Mitchell lab is using lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) to carry mRNA and DNA sequences inside of macrophages, a type of immune cell that can consume tumor cells if engineered correctly. In theory, a patient would receive an injection carrying the LNP payload, and the macrophages, whose name literally means “big eaters,” would take up the genetic sequence, alter their function and be able to recognize a patient’s own unique tumor cells in the body.
Because of the way macrophages operate, they could cross the tumor’s biological barrier and attack the cells, destroying the tumor from the inside. An added benefit of the Mitchell Lab’s technology is that the destroyed tumor cells would then also allow other immune cells to present their antigens to circulating T cells, which could then learn to fight those same cancer cells in the future.
“One of the longstanding challenges that we face in the context of cancer and immunotherapies is that every tumor has unique antigens that are specific to patients,” says Mitchell. “This is why we’ve had a lot of trouble developing targeted therapies. Personalizing an approach by harnessing an individual’s immune system gives each patient a greater chance of a positive outcome.”
Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering, is one of this year’s recipients of the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award. The award is given to early-career faculty researchers who demonstrate the potential to be role models in their field and invest in the outreach and education of their work.
Mitchell’s award will fund research on techniques for “immunoengineering” macrophages. By providing new instructions to these cells via nanoparticles laden with mRNA and DNA sequences, the immune system could be trained to target and eliminate solid tumors. The award will also support graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in his lab over the next five years.
The project aligns with Mitchell’s larger research goals and the current explosion of interest in therapies that use mRNA, thanks to the technological breakthroughs that enabled the development of COVID-19 vaccines.
“The development of the COVID vaccine using mRNA has opened doors for other cell therapies,” says Mitchell. “The high-priority area of research that we are focusing on is oncological therapies, and there are multiple applications for mRNA engineering in the fight against cancer.”
A new wave of remarkably effective cancer treatments incorporates chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy. There, a patient’s T-cells, a type of white blood cell that fights infections, are genetically engineered to identify, target and kill individual cancer cells that accumulate in the circulatory system.
However, despite CART-T therapy’s success in treating certain blood cancers, the approach is not effective against cancers that form solid tumors. Because T-cells are not able to penetrate tumors’ fibrous barriers, Mitchell and his colleagues have turned to another part of the immune system for help.
We hope you will join us for the Spring 2022 Herman P. Schwan Distinguished Lecture by Dr. Drew Weissman, hosted by the Department of Bioengineering.
Date: Tuesday, March 29, 2022
Time: 3:30-5:00 PM
Location: Bodek Lounge, Houston Hall Reception to follow Zoom Link
Speaker:Drew Weissman, M.D., Ph.D.
Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research, Department of Medicine
Perelman School of Medicine
University of Pennsylvania
Vaccines prevent 4-5 million deaths a year making them the principal tool of medical intervention worldwide. Nucleoside-modified mRNA was developed over 15 years ago and has become the darling of the COVID-19 pandemic with the first 2 FDA approved vaccines based on it. These vaccines show greater than 90% efficacy and outstanding safety in clinical use. The mechanism for the outstanding immune response induction are the prolonged production of antigen leading to continuous loading of germinal centers and the adjuvant effect of the LNPs, which selectively stimulate T follicular helper cells that drive germinal center responses. Vaccine against many pathogens, including HIV, HCV, HSV2, CMV, universal influenza, coronavirus variants, pancoronavirus, nipah, norovirus, malaria, TB, and many others are currently in development. Nucleoside-modified mRNA is also being developed for therapeutic protein delivery. Clinical trials with mRNA encoded monoclonal antibodies are underway and many other therapeutic or genetic deficient proteins are being developed. Finally, nucleoside-modified mRNA-LNPs are being developed and used for gene therapy. Cas9 knockout to treat transthyretin amyloidosis has shown success in phase 1 trials. We have developed the ability to target specific cells and organs, including lung, brain, heart, CD4+ cells, all T cells, and bone marrow stem cells, with LNPs allowing specific delivery of gene editing and insertion systems to treat diseases such as sickle cell anemia, Nucleoside-modified mRNA will have an enormous potential in the development of new medical therapies.
Drew Weissman, M.D., Ph.D. is a professor of Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. He received his graduate degrees from Boston University School of Medicine. Dr. Weissman, in collaboration with Dr. Katalin Karikó, discovered the ability of modified nucleosides in RNA to suppress activation of innate immune sensors and increase the translation of mRNA containing certain modified nucleosides. The nucleoside-modified mRNA-lipid nanoparticle vaccine platform Dr. Weissman’s lab created is used in the first 2 approved COVID-19 vaccines by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. They continue to develop other vaccines that induce potent antibody and T cell responses with mRNA–based vaccines. Dr. Weissman’s lab also develops methods to replace genetically deficient proteins, edit the genome, and specifically target cells and organs with mRNA-LNPs, including lung, heart, brain, CD4+ cells, all T cells, and bone marrow stem cells.
About the Schwan Lecture:
The Herman P. Schwan Distinguished Lecture is in honor of one of the founding members of the Department of Bioengineering, who emigrated from Germany after World War II and helped create the field of bioengineering in the US. It recognizes people with a similar transformative impact on the field of bioengineering.
Penn Engineering secured a multi-million-dollar contract with Wellcome Leap under the organization’s $60 million RNA Readiness + Response (R3) program, which is jointly funded with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). Penn Engineers aim to create “on-demand” manufacturing technology that can produce a range of RNA-based vaccines.
The Penn Engineering team features Daeyeon Lee, Evan C Thompson Term Chair for Excellence in Teaching and Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, David Issadore, Associate Professor in Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, and Sagar Yadavali, a former postdoctoral researcher in the Issadore and Lee labs and now the CEO of InfiniFluidics, a spinoff company based on their research. Drew Weissman of the Perelman School of Medicine, whose foundational research directly continued to the development of mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines, is also a part of this interdisciplinary team.
The success of these COVID-19 vaccines has inspired a fresh perspective and wave of research funding for RNA therapeutics across a wide range of difficult diseases and health issues. These therapeutics now need to be equitably and efficiently distributed, something currently limited by the inefficient mRNA vaccine manufacturing processes which would rapidly translate technologies from the lab to the clinic.
From COVID vaccines to cancer immunotherapies to the potential for correcting developmental disorders in utero, mRNA-based approaches are a promising tool in the fight against a wide range of diseases. These treatments all depend on providing a patient’s cells with genetic instructions for custom proteins and other small molecules, meaning that getting those instructions inside the target cells is of critical importance.
The current delivery method of choice uses lipid nanoparticles (LNPs). Thanks to surfaces customized with binding and signaling molecules, they encapsulate mRNA sequences and smuggle them through the cell membrane. But with a practically unlimited number of variables in the makeup of those surfaces and molecules, figuring out how to design the most effective LNP is a fundamental challenge.
Now, in a study featured on the cover of the journal Nano Letters, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and Perelman School of Medicine have now shown how to computationally optimize the design of these delivery vehicles.
Using an established methodology for comparing a wide range of variables known as “orthogonal design of experiments,” the researchers simultaneously tested 256 candidate LNPs. They found the frontrunner was three times better at delivering mRNA sequences into T cells than the current standard LNP formulation for mRNA delivery.
The study was led by Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Margaret Billingsley, a graduate student in his lab.
COVID-19 vaccines are just the beginning for mRNA-based therapies; enabling a patient’s body to make almost any given protein could revolutionize care for other viruses, like HIV, as well as various cancers and genetic disorders. However, because mRNA molecules are very fragile, they require extremely low temperatures for storage and transportation. The logistical challenges and expense of maintaining these temperatures must be overcome before mRNA therapies can become truly widespread.
With these challenges in mind, Penn Engineering researchers are developing a new manufacturing technique that would be able to produce mRNA sequences on demand and on-site, isolating them in a way that removes the need for cryogenic temperatures. With more labs able to make and store mRNA-based therapeutics on their own, the “cold chain” between manufacturer and patient can be made shorter, faster and less expensive.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is supporting this project, known as Distributed Ribonucleic Acid Manufacturing, or DReAM, through a four-year, $2 million grant from its Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) program.
The project will be led by Daeyeon Lee, Evan C Thompson Term Chair for Excellence in Teaching and Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), along with Kathleen Stebe, Richer and Elizabeth Goodwin Professor in CBE and in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. They will collaborate with Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering, Drexel University’s Masoud Soroush and Michael Grady, the University of Oklahoma’s Dimitrios Papavassiliou and the University of Colorado Boulder’s Joel Kaar.
The COVID vaccines currently being deployed were developed with unprecedented speed, but the mRNA technology at work in some of them is an equally impressive success story. Because any desired mRNA sequence can be synthesized in massive quantities, one of the biggest hurdles in a variety of mRNA therapies is the ability to package those sequences into the lipid nanoparticles that deliver them into cells.
Now, thanks to manufacturing technology developed by bioengineers and medical researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, a hundred-fold increase in current microfluidic production rates may soon be possible.
The researchers’ advance stems from their design of a proof-of-concept microfluidic device containing 128 mixing channels working in parallel. The channels mix a precise amount of lipid and mRNA, essentially crafting individual lipid nanoparticles on a miniaturized assembly line.
This increased speed may not be the only benefit; more precisely controlling the nanoparticles’ size could make treatments more effective. The researchers tested the lipid nanoparticles produced by their device in a mouse study, showing they could deliver therapeutic RNA sequences with four-to-five times greater activity than those made by conventional methods.
The study was led by Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, and David Issadore, Associate Professor in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, along with Sarah Shepherd, a doctoral student in both of their labs. Rakan El-Mayta, a research engineer in Mitchell’s lab, and Sagar Yadavali, a postdoctoral researcher in Issadore’s lab, also contributed to the study.
They collaborated with several researchers at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine: postdoctoral researcher Mohamad-Gabriel Alameh, Lili Wang, Research Associate Professor of Medicine, James M. Wilson, Rose H. Weiss Orphan Disease Center Director’s Professor in the Department of Medicine, Claude Warzecha, a senior research investigator in Wilson’s lab, and Drew Weissman, Professor of Medicine and one of the original developers of the technology behind mRNA vaccines.
“We believe that this microfluidic technology has the potential to not only play a key role in the formulation of current COVID vaccines,” says Mitchell, “but also to potentially address the immense need ahead of us as mRNA technology expands into additional classes of therapeutics.”