“’The students all come here and they hang out and they build stuff,’ said David Issadore, associate professor of bioengineering and electrical and systems engineering. ‘This junior-level course is kind of an entry point for their senior design. So next year, all these students are going to take on new projects, and then they all kind of hang around here and they build incredible stuff.’”
The profile of the BE Labs is part of Technical.ly’s 2023 Universities Month, a series focusing on the latest trends and tech in higher education.
Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) professors and Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group members Carl June and Avery Posey are leading the charge in T cell therapy and the fight against cancer.
Advances in genome editing through processes such as CRISPR, and the ability to rewire cells through synthetic biology, have led to increasingly elaborate approaches for modifying and supercharging T cells for therapy. Avery Posey, Assistant Professor of Pharmacology, and Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy, explain how new techniques are providing tools to counter some of the limitations of current CAR T cell therapies in a recent Nature feature.
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.
With appointments in the Departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, as well as the Department of Physics and Astronomy in Penn Arts & Science, and the Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry in Penn Perelman’s School of Medicine, Dani S. Bassett is no stranger to following the thread of an idea, no matter where it might lead.
Those wide-ranging fields and disciplines orbit around an appropriate central question: how does the tangle of neurons in our brains wire itself up to learn new things? Bassett, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor and director of the Complex Systems Lab, studies the relationship between the shape of those networks of neurons and the brain’s abilities, especially the way the shape of the network grows and changes with the addition of new knowledge.
To get at the fundamentals of the question of curiosity, Bassett needed to draw on even more disciplines. Fortunately, they didn’t have to look far; Bassett’s identical twin is Perry Zurn, a professor of philosophy at American University, and the two have investigated the many different ways a person can exhibit curiosity.
Bassett and Zurn have now published a new book on the subject. In Curious Minds: The Power of Connection, the twins draw on their previous research, as well as an expansive network of ideas from philosophy, history, education and art.
“It wasn’t clear at the beginning of our careers that we would even ever have a chance to write a book together because our areas were so wildly different,” Bassett says – but then, as postgraduates, Zurn was studying the philosophy of curiosity while Bassett was working on the neuroscience of learning. “And so that’s when we started talking. That talking led to seven years of doing research together,” Bassett says. “This book is a culmination of that.”
How exactly do philosophy and neuroscience complement each other? It all starts with the book’s first, and most deceptively simple question: what is curiosity? “Several investigators in science have underscored that perhaps the field isn’t even ready to define curiosity and how it’s different from other cognitive processes,” says Bassett. The ambiguity in the neuroscience literature motivated Bassett to turn to philosophy, “where there are really rich historical definitions and styles and subtypes that we can then put back into neuroscience and ask: ‘Can we see these in the brain?’”
Though the technology for brain-computer interfaces (or BCI’s) has existed for decades, recent strides have been made to create BCI devices which are safer, smaller, and more effective. Konrad Kording, Nathan Francis Mossell University Professor in Bioengineering, Neuroscience, and Computer and Information Science, helps to elucidate the potential future of this technology in a recent feature in Wired. In the article, he discusses the “invasive” aspects of previous BCI technology, in contrast to recent innovations, such as a new device by Synchron, which do not require surgery and are consequently much less risky:
“The device, called a Stentrode, has a mesh-like design and is about the length of a AAA battery. It is implanted endovascularly, meaning it’s placed into a blood vessel in the brain, in the region known as the motor cortex, which controls movement. Insertion involves cutting into the jugular vein in the neck, snaking a catheter in, and feeding the device through it all the way up into the brain, where, when the catheter is removed, it opens up like a flower and nestles itself into the blood vessel’s wall. Most neurosurgeons are already up to speed on the basic approach required to put it in, which reduces a high-risk surgery to a procedure that could send the patient home the very same day. ‘And that is the big innovation,” Kording says.
Carl June, MD, Professor in the Perelman School of Medicine and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, was quoted in a recent press release announcing a new international partnership between Penn Medicine (PSOM), the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (CHOP), and Costa Rica’s CCSS, or the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (Social Security Program), to develop CAR T research in Costa Rica. June is a world renowned cancer cell therapy pioneer whose research led to the initial development and FDA approval of CAR T cell therapy:
“‘At least 15,000 patients across the world have received CAR T cells, and dozens more clinical trials using this approach are in progress, for almost every major tumor type, but people in many parts of the globe still do not have access to treatment with these transformative therapies,’ said Carl H. June, MD, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. “We are honored to work with our colleagues in Costa Rica in hopes of building a path for patients in underserved areas to have the opportunity to benefit from clinical research programs offering this personalized therapy.’”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has expanded its approval for Kymriah, a personalized cellular therapy developed at the Abramson Cancer Center, this time for the treatment of adults with relapsed/refractory follicular lymphoma who have received at least two lines of systemic therapy. “Patients with follicular lymphoma who relapse or don’t respond to treatment have a poor prognosis and may face a series of treatment options without a meaningful, lasting response,” said Stephen J. Schuster, the Robert and Margarita Louis-Dreyfus Professor in Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia and Lymphoma in the Division of Hematology Oncology. It’s the third FDAapproval for the “living drug,” which was the first of its kind to be approved, in 2017, and remains the only CAR T cell therapy approved for both adult and pediatric patients.
“In just over a decade, we have moved from treating the very first patients with CAR T cell therapy and seeing them live healthy lives beyond cancer to having three FDA-approved uses of these living drugs which have helped thousands of patients across the globe,” said Carl June, MD, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies in the Abramson Cancer Center and director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Penn. “Today’s news is new fuel for our work to define the future of cell therapy and set new standards in harnessing the immune system to treat cancer.”
Research from June, a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, led to the initial FDA approval for the CAR T therapy (sold by Novartis as Kymriah) for treating acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), one of the most common childhood cancers.
In an interview with Quanta Magazine, Vijay Balasubramanian discusses his work as a theoretical physicist, noting his study of the foundations of physics and the fundamentals of space and time. He speaks of the importance of interdisciplinary study and about how literature and the humanities can contextualize scientific exploration in the study of physics, computer science, and neuroscience.
Balasubramanian is Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Penn School of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.
Kevin B. Johnson, M.D., M.S., was featured in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital’s “Envisioning Our Future for Children” speaker series, discussing “the evolution of the EHR and its future directions.” An electronic health record, or EHR, is a digital record of a patient’s chart, recording health information and data, coordinating orders, tracking results, and providing patient support. Johnson “predicts a new wave of transformation in digital health technologies that could make rapid progress” in several areas of medicine, including reducing cost and improving patience outcomes. Johnson is Vice President for Applied Informatics at the University of Pennsylvania Health System and the David L. Cohen University Professor with appointments in Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Informatics and Computer and Information Science and secondary appointments in the Annenberg School for Communication, Pediatrics, and Bioengineering.
With Vivodyne, Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering Dan Huh is translating the organs-on-chips technology into a promising industry venture. Using microfluidic structures that mimic aspects of human physiology, organs-on-chips allow scientists to test therapies on lab-grown human cells. Vivodyne specifically focuses on designing organs-on-chips to create a scalable alternative for pharmaceutical drug testing on animals.
Fast Company now lists it as one of “the 10 most innovative companies with fewer than 10 employees,” saying “Vivodyne is helping major pharmaceutical companies like GlaxoSmithKline quickly adopt viable alternatives for testing drugs on monkeys.”
Vivodyne, launched in 2021, has created a platform that allows fully automated, complex studies at a far larger scale and lower cost than would be possible with manual experimentation, so pharmaceutical companies can actually test lab-made organs instead of animals in their drug-development processes. When done by hand, only 20 to 40 living tissue samples can be managed in parallel; Vivodyne’s instrument can cultivate, dose, and image more than 2,000 living tissues at once. The company, which raised $4 million in seed funding last year, says its instruments currently play pivotal roles in clinical drug testing for respiratory diseases, cancer treatment, vaccine development, diabetes therapies, and maternal medicine. GlaxoSmithKline, one of Vivodyne’s clients, estimates that for some projects the lab-grown tissues may displace as much as 80% of its animal testing. The company’s ultimate goal? “To supplant the vast majority of animal testing within the next decade,” says CEO Andrei Georgescu.