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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
NextUp, a regular feature of Philadelphia Magazine that “highlights the local leaders, organizations and research shaping the Greater Philadelphia region’s life sciences ecosystem,” ran a profile of Philly-based agricultural startup Strella Biotechnology. Founded by Penn alumna Katherine Sizov (Bio 2019) and winner of a 2019 President’s Innovation Prize, Strella Biotech seeks to reduce food waste through innovative biosensors, and was initially developed in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory, the biomakerspace and primary teaching lab of the Department of Bioengineering.
Sizov says the coronavirus pandemic has made the volatility of grocery stores’ offerings even more apparent. Last April, the Produce Marketing Association estimated that nearly $5 billion of fresh fruits and vegetables had gone to waste in the first month of the pandemic due to the complex supply chain’s inability to quickly redirect shipping and distribution. ‘In a way, I think COVID-19 has helped us realize how delicate and fragile supply chains are,’ she says. ‘We are working to create better, stronger supply chains that are economically and environmentally sustainable for everyone involved — researchers, growers, packagers, distributors, retailers, and consumers.'”
César de la Fuente, PhD, Presidential Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Psychiatry, and Microbiology, was featured in the Philadelphia Business Journal’s Class of 2021 “40 Under 40” list. Currently focused on antibiotic discovery, creating tools for microbiome engineering, and low-cost diagnostics, de le Fuente pioneered the world’s first computer-designed antibiotic with efficacy in animal models.
De la Fuente was previously included in the AIChE’s “35 Under 35” list in 2020 and most recently published his work demonstrating a rapid COVID-19 diagnostic test which delivers highly accurate results within four minutes.
Read “40 Under 40: Philadelphia Business Journal’s complete Class of 2021” here.
Read other BE blog posts featuring Dr. de la Fuente here.