“Science vs Science: The Contradictory Fight Over Whether Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity is Real”

cell phones
Kenneth R. Foster, Ph.D.

Electromagnetic fields are everywhere, and especially so in recent years. To most of us, those fields are undetectable. But a small number of people believe they have an actual allergy to electromagnetic fields. Ken Foster, a Professor Emeritus of Bioengineering, has heard these arguments before.  “Activists would point to all these biological effects studies and say, ‘There must be some hazard’; health agencies would have meticulous reviews of literature and not see much of a problem.”

Listen to the episode of The Pulse and read the full story at WHYY.

Originally posted on Penn Today.

Bioengineering’s Organ-on-a-chip Spin-off is Growing

Andrei Georgescu (left) and Dan Huh are the co-founders of Vivodyne, a spin-off of Huh’s BIOLines lab.

Dan Huh, Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, has been steadily growing a collection of organs-on-chips. These devices incorporate human cells into precisely engineered microfluidic channels that mimic an organ’s natural environment, providing a way to conduct experiments that would not otherwise be feasible.

Huh’s previous research has involved using a placenta-on-a-chip to study which drugs are able to reach a developing fetus; investigating microgravity’s effect on the immune system by sending one of his chips to the International Space Station; and testing treatments for dry eye disease using an eye-on-a-chip, complete with a mechanical blinking eyelid.

Now, he and his colleagues are taking this technology out of their lab and into industry with their company, Vivodyne.

Andrei Georgescu, Huh’s lab-member and co-founder of Vivodyne, recently spoke with Technical.ly Philly’s Paige Gross about the growth of their company.

Research into potential drugs is usually performed first on mice, and success is only found in a fraction of humans once implemented in clinical trials, Andrei Georgescu, cofounder and CEO of Vivodyne, told Technical.ly. The genetic makeup just isn’t similar enough. But technology that allows scientists to test therapies on lab-grown human organs called “organs on chip” is allowing for testing without human subjects.

The organs on chip allow for a drug to react to tissue in a more similar way to the body than it would in a petri dish, Georgescu said. Cells sense their environment very well, he added.

“We’re making the environment more complicated, making its spacial features complicated enough to match the native complexity of the organs,” he said. “When [cells] sense a softer environment, they start to behave more realistically. Their response to the drug is more realistic.”

Continue reading “This Penn-founded biotech company specializing in human ‘organs on chip’ raised $4M” at Technical.ly Philly. 

Originally posted in Penn Engineering Today.

Michael Mitchell on Keeping mRNA Vaccines Viable

A National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases lab freezer used for COVID-19 vaccine research. Both of the current mRNA-based COVID vaccines require ultra-cold freezers to prevent their mRNA from degrading, spurring research into other ways to stabilize the molecule.

As the technology behind two of the COVID-19 vaccines, Messenger RNA (mRNA) is having a moment. A single-stranded counterpart to DNA, mRNA translates its genetic code into proteins; by injecting mRNA engineered to produce proteins found on the exterior of the virus, the vaccine can train a person’s immune system to recognize the real thing without making them sick.

However, because mRNA is a relatively unstable molecule, distributing these vaccines involves extra logistical challenges. Doses must be transported and stored at ultra-cold temperatures to make sure the mRNA inside doesn’t degrade and lose the genetic information it carries.

Michael Mitchell
Michael Mitchell

As mRNA vaccines and other therapies take off, researchers are looking for other ways to forestall this degradation. One of them is Michael J. Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering, who is studying the use of lipid nanoparticles to encapsulate and protect mRNA on its way into the cell. That sort of packaging would be particularly beneficial in proposed mRNA therapies for certain genetic disorders, which aim to deliver the correct protein-making instructions to specific organs, or even a fetus in utero.

But for stabilizing mRNA for vaccine distribution, many other strategies are being explored. In “Keeping covid vaccines cold isn’t easy. These ideas could help,” Wudan Yan of MIT Technology Review reached out to Mitchell for insight on LIONs, or lipid inorganic nanoparticles. These nanoparticles work the opposite way of Mitchell’s organic ones, with the mRNA stabilized by binding to their exteriors.

Continue reading at MIT Technology Review.

Originally posted in Penn Engineering Today.

‘RNA worked for COVID-19 vaccines. Could it be used to treat cancer and rare childhood diseases?’

William H. Peranteau, Michael J. Mitchell, Margaret Billingsley, Meghana Kashyap, and Rachel Riley (Clockwise from top left)

As COVID-19 vaccines roll out, the concept of using mRNA to fend off viruses has become a part of the public dialogue. However, scientists have been researching how mRNA can be used to in life-saving medical treatments well before the pandemic.

The “m” in “mRNA” is for “messenger.” A single-stranded counterpart to DNA, it translates the genetic code into the production of proteins, the building blocks of life. The Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines work by introducing mRNA sequences that act as a set of instructions for the body to produce proteins that mimic parts of the virus itself. This prepares the body’s immune response to recognize the real virus and fight it off.

Because it can spur the production of proteins that the body can’t make on its own, mRNA therapies also have the potential to slow or prevent genetic diseases that develop before birth, such as cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia.

However, because mRNA is a relatively unstable molecule that degrades quickly, it needs to be packaged in a way that maintains its integrity as its delivered to the cells of a developing fetus.

To solve this challenge, Michael J. Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering, is researching the use of lipid nanoparticles as packages that transport mRNA into the cell. He and William H. Peranteau, an attending surgeon in the Division of General, Thoracic and Fetal Surgery and the Adzick-McCausland Distinguished Chair in Fetal and Pediatric Surgery at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, recently co-authored a “proof-of-concept” paper investigating this technique.

In this study, published in Science Advances, Mitchel examined which nanoparticles were optimal in the transport of mRNA to fetal mice. Although no disease or organ was targeted in this study, the ability to administer mRNA to a mouse while still in the womb was demonstrated, and the results are promising for the next stages of targeted disease prevention in humans.

Mitchel spoke with Tom Avril at The Philadelphia Inquirer about the mouse study and its implications for treatment of rare infant diseases through the use of mRNA, ‘the messenger of life.’

Penn bioengineering professor Michael J. Mitchell, the other senior author of the mouse study, tested various combinations of lipids to see which would work best.

The appeal of the fatty substances is that they are biocompatible. In the vaccines, for example, two of the four lipids used to make the delivery spheres are identical to lipids found in the membranes of human cells — including plain old cholesterol.

When injected, the spheres, called nanoparticles, are engulfed by the person’s cells and then deposit their cargo, the RNA molecules, inside. The cells respond by making the proteins, just as they make proteins by following the instructions in the person’s own RNA. (Important reminder: The RNA in the vaccines cannot become part of your DNA.)

Among the different lipid combinations that Mitchell and his lab members tested, some were better at delivering their cargo to specific organs, such as the liver and lungs, meaning they could be a good vehicle for treating disease in those tissues.

Continue reading Tom Avril’s ‘RNA worked for COVID-19 vaccines. Could it be used to treat cancer and rare childhood diseases?’ at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

President’s Innovation Prize Winner Strella Biotechnology Raises $3.3 Million in Seed Funding

Alumni Malika Shukurova (left) and Katherine Sizov, Strella Biotechnology

Last year, Katherine Sizov (BIO ’19) and Malika Shukurova (BE ’19) earned the 2019 President’s Innovation Prize for their plan to use Internet-of-Things technology to monitor fruit ripeness and reduce waste in produce supply chains. Their company, Strella Biotechnology, received $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.

Now, it has $3.3 million on hand as it attempts to take its technology into retail stores.

As reported in Technically Philly and the Philadelphia Business Journal, the “fruit hacking” company’s seed round funding comes from several venture capital firms, including Pennovation’s Red & Blue Ventures, as well as celebrity investor Mark Cuban.

Strella’s ethylene sensors are already being used by fruit packers in order to more precisely time shipments as their produce ripens. The Penn start-up company thinks retailers could similarly benefit when it comes to deciding when to put their stock out for sale.

Read more at Technically Philly and the Philadelphia Business Journal.

Originally posted on the Penn Engineering Blog.

NB: The initial work for Strella Biotechnology was done by Sizov in Penn Bioengineering’s  George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory and Bio-MakerSpace. Read more about how BE’s Bio-MakerSpace has become a hub for start-ups here.

Penn BE Alumnus Helps Develop Rapid COVID-19 Test

Spencer Glantz (left) examines a scheme for light-activated protein cleavage with Dr. Brian Chow (middle) and 2014 iGEM team member Daniel Cabrera (right).

Spencer Glantz, a graduate of the Penn Bioengineering doctoral program and former member of the Brian Chow Lab, was mentioned in a recent WHYY piece highlighting the efforts of Penn labs to develop rapid, at-home testing for COVID-19. Glantz is currently a co-leader of the molecular biology team for 4Catalyzer, a medical device incubator founded by National Medal of Technology and Innovation recipient, and sponsor of the annual Rothberg Catalyzer Makerthon competition, Jonathan Rothberg. 4Catalyzer is developing the testing technology while Penn researchers are working to evaluate its effectiveness.

Glantz defended his Ph.D. in 2017 and went on to become a postdoc at the Jackson Laboratory (JAX). He was the recipient of the NSF GRFP Fellowship, and during his doctoral work, he discovered a new class of photoreceptors useful for controlling signaling at the cell membrane with light. During his time at Penn, Glantz also mentored the university’s iGEM team, bringing the annual program devoted to undergraduate-led innovation in synthetic biology to the University of Pennsylvania.

Read the full WHYY article here.

Dan Huh’s Space-based Organ-on-a-Chip Experiments Featured in WIRED

By Lauren Salig

SpaceX launched its 17th resupply mission to the International Space Station on May 4, with bioengineering professor Dan Huh’s organ-on-a-chip experiments in tow.

Dan Huh, the Wilf Family Term Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, researches human organs and the diseases that infect them by engineering devices made of living cells that act as stand-ins for organs. Huh’s lab has developed imitations of many organs, including the placenta and the eye, but it’s his lung-on-a-chip and his bone-marrow-on-a-chip that are reaching unprecedented heights as part of a new experiment taking place at the International Space Station (ISS).

On May 4, SpaceX launched a ISS-bound cargo capsule carrying Huh’s organ-on-a-chip experiments, which will remain in space for a month. Once back on Earth, the chips that spent time in space will be compared to control chips from Huh’s lab that are being monitored in parallel. Huh’s team is looking to see how being in space affects bacterial infections in lungs and white blood cell behavior in bone marrow. The researchers’ hope is that their studies will reveal important information about how human organs function both in space and on Earth.

Daniel Oberhaus of WIRED wrote an article describing the multiple organs-on-a-chip experiments being conducted at the ISS, including the two experiments headed by Huh:

Dan Huh is a bioengineer at the University of Pennsylvania and the lead researcher on the lung tissue chip headed to the ISS. This lung chip models a human airway and will be infected with Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a species of bacteria that had previously been found on the ISS. On Earth this bacteria is usually associated with respiratory infections, which are one of the leading types of illness on long-duration missions to the ISS.

Huh says scientists still know very little about why astronauts’ immune response seems to become suppressed in orbit, and the tissue chips are aimed at building a better understanding of the phenomenon.

 

Originally posted at the Penn Engineering Medium Blog.

Read the entire article at WIRED.