Konrad Kording on the Future of Brain-Computer Interfaces

Konrad Kording (Photo by Eric Sucar)

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.

Read “The Age of Brain-Computer Interfaces Is on the Horizon” in Wired.

Penn Medicine and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Announce Partnership with Costa Rica for CAR T Cell Therapy

Carl June, MD

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.’”

Read the the announcement in Penn Medicine News.

 

FDA Approves Penn Pioneered CAR T Cell Therapy for Third Indication

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 FDA approval 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.

Read the full announcement in Penn Medicine News.

Vijay Balasubramanian Discusses Theoretical Physics in Quanta Magazine

Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor Vijay Balasubramanian at Penn’s BioPond.

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.

Read “Pondering the Bits That Build Space-Time and Brains” in Quanta Magazine.

Kevin Johnson Discusses the Future of the Electronic Health Record

Kevin B. Johnson, M.D., Ph.D.

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.

Read “What Will It Take to Make EHR a Partner Instead of a Burden?” in the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Research Horizons blog. View Johnson’s seminar talk on the Envisioning Our Future website.

Bionegineering Spin-off Vivodyne on Fast Company’s ‘Most Innovative’ List

Andrei Georgescu (left) and Dan Huh developed several organ-on-a-chip platforms in Huh’s lab. Their spin-off company, Vivodyne, aims to use the technology as a scalable alternative to animal testing in the pharmaceutical industry.

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.

Last year, the company raised $4 million dollars in seed money. This year, it’s topping influential lists of small companies making big impacts.

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.

Continue reading “The 10 most innovative companies with fewer than 10 employees” at Fast Company.

Originally posted in Penn Engineering today.

Jenny Jiang on T Cell Diversity and Cancer Immunotherapy

by Melissa Pappas

Jenny Jiang, Ph.D.

Our body’s natural line of defense against infection and disease, as well as cancer, is our immune system equipped with T cells, a type of white blood cell that determines how we react to foreign substances, or antigens, in the body. While we have an arsenal of T cells to protect us from these various infections, some people lack certain T cells or simply do not have enough to fight off infections, such as the flu or HIV, or defend against the body’s own mutated cancer cells.

Understanding the diversity of T cells and which antigens they target can provide insight into developing personalized immunotherapy to help those patients with weak spots or gaps in their T cell community. Jenny Jiang, Peter and Geri Skirkanich Associate Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, is characterizing this diversity.

Jiang recently received a Cancer Research Institute’s (CRI) Lloyd J. Old STAR grant to support her research on this topic. The CRI STAR grant identifies mid-career “Scientists TAking Risks” in innovative cancer immunotherapy research areas, providing freedom and flexibility to pursue high-risk, high-reward research with financial support of $1.25 Million over the course of five years.

Jiang spoke with CRI science writer Arthur Brodsky about her research and how the STAR grant will support it.

“In our studies of healthy individuals, who have some natural immune protection against commonly encountered viruses like the flu, we noticed that not everyone has T cells that cover all the possible antigens,” says Jiang. “There are differences in the number and types of flu-targeting T cells that each individual has. For some “exotic” antigens, like those of HIV for example, although the general population doesn’t actually have exposure to them, they should still have a very low level of minimum T cells that can offer some protection from possible future infection. So that part of our T cell arsenal acts as a safety net. But some individuals may completely lack those T cells. In those cases, as you can imagine, those people will have a hard time overcoming a future infection.”

Jiang describes how this is similar to how our bodies prevent cancerous tumor growth.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

César de La Fuente Uses AI to Discover Germ-fighting Peptides

César de la Fuente, PhD

The impending danger of bacterial resistance to antibiotics is well-documented within the scientific community. Bacteria are the most efficient evolvers, and their ability to develop tolerance to drugs, in addition to antibiotic overuse and misuse, means that researchers have had to get particularly resourceful to ensure the future of modern medicine.  

Presidential Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, Microbiology, Psychiatry, and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering César de la Fuente and his team are using an algorithm to search the human genome for microbe-fighting peptides. So far, the team has synthesized roughly 55 peptides that, when tested against popular drug-resistant microbes such as the germ responsible for staph infections, have proven to prevent bacteria from replicating.  

WIRED’s Max G. Levy recently spoke with de la Fuente and postdoctoral researcher and study collaborator Marcelo Torres about the urgency of the team’s work, and why developing these solutions is critical to the survival of civilization as we know it. The team’s algorithm, based on pattern recognition software used to analyze images, makes an otherwise insurmountable feat tangible.  

De la Fuente’s lab specializes in using AI to discover and design new drugs. Rather than making some all-new peptide molecules that fit the bill, they hypothesized that an algorithm could use machine learning to winnow down the huge repository of natural peptide sequences in the human proteome into a select few candidates.

“We know those patterns—the multiple patterns—that we’re looking for,” says de la Fuente. “So that allows us to use the algorithm as a search function.”

Read Max G. Levy’s An AI Finds Superbug-Killing Potential in Human Proteins” at WIRED. 

This story previously appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

Strella Biotechnology Continues Scaling Up

Katherine Sizov (right) and Malika Shukurova (left) earned the 2019 President’s Innovation Prize for their startup, Strella Biotechnology.

“Fruit hacking” startup Strella Biotechnology, founded by students and faculty advisors from the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) and the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS), tackles food waste by monitoring fruit ripeness. No stranger to media coverage, Strella and co-founder Katherine Sizov have previously been spotlighted for receiving the 2019 President’s Innovation Prize, which included $100,000 of financial support, a $50,000 living stipend for both awardees, and a year of dedicated co-working and lab space at the Pennovation Center. 

Recently, Michael Birnbaum of the Washington Post spoke with Sizov about the hard work and flexibility it took to propel the company’s successful scaling endeavors: Strella is now monitoring 15 percent of all U.S. apples.  

“Sizov, 24, wants to eliminate food waste one fruit at a time. In central Washington, it was an effort that required almost as much quick footwork as the épée squad she captained as a championship fencer in college. One moment, she was trying to beam the sensor’s WiFi signal through the reception black hole of millions of apples, which cause transmission issues because of their high water content. The next, she was sitting down with laconic apple growers with orchards planted generations ago, trying to convince them she could help them avoid wasted fruit. By day’s end, she might be folding her 6-foot frame into the passenger seat of a rental car, balancing her laptop on her knees and trying to win over Silicon Valley investors on Zoom calls using skills she had picked up partly by watching YouTube tutorials.”

Read Michael Birnbaum’s Fighting food waste, one apple at a time” for more about Sizov’s motivation, background and process.

Strella Biotechnology was founded by Penn alumna Katherine Sizov (Bio 2019) and was initially developed in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory, the biomakerspace and primary teaching lab of the Department of Bioengineering. Sizov and Penn Bioengineering alumna Malika Shukurova (BSE 2019) won a President’s Innovation Prize in 2019. Read more BE blog stories featuring Strella Biotechnology.

Carl June Highlighted for Success in Gene Therapy

Carl June, MD

Scientific American recently featured two gene therapies that were invented at Penn, including research from Carl June, MD, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies, and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, which led to the 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.

Read “Four Success Stories in Gene Therapy” in Scientific American.