Johnson, who has appointments in the Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and a secondary appointment in the Annenberg School for Communication, will become the David L. Cohen University Professor.
“David Cohen’s extraordinary leadership at the University and Penn Medicine, and longtime dedication to Philadelphia, has without a doubt shaped the booming campus, health system, and city we so much enjoy today,” says Gutmann. “His dedication is mirrored by the extraordinarily influential, innovative, and committed Dr. Kevin Johnson, whose university professorship will now bear Ambassador Cohen’s name.”
Cohen has served for two decades on Penn’s Board of Trustees and recently concluded a 12-year term as chair. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate last month as United States Ambassador to Canada, bringing to the role decades of experience as a senior executive at Comcast Corp., chair of the Ballard Spahr law firm, chief of staff to Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, trustee chair at Penn, and major player in a number of other business, civic, political, and philanthropic venues.
In addition to serving as a Trustee, Cohen is a Penn alum, having graduated from what is now the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law in 1981. His wife and son also attended the Law School. Cohen’s leadership in the University has been credited with helping guide the growth and advancement of both the University and Health System, in close partnership with both President Gutmann and her predecessor, Judith Rodin.
“It’s an honor to hold a professorship named after Mr. Cohen,” Johnson says. “Throughout his career, he has provided inspired leadership across Penn and our city and region. He is a passionate believer in uniting the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to tackle complex challenges and strengthen communities. Those who know me know that I’ve played a similar role as a pediatrician who works with technology, and who uses digital media to communicate to lay audiences about both. His passion for this city and our University’s educational mission are inspiring.”
N.B.: Johnson also holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Bioengineering. Read his full appointment announcement here.
Joseph Lance Casila, a doctoral student and Fontaine Fellow in Bioengineering, was profiled by his alma mater, the University of Guam (UOG. Casila was the first person in his family to graduate from a U.S.-accredited university and is now studying tissue engineering and regenerative medicine in the Bioengineering and Biomaterials Laboratory of Riccardo Gottardi, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering in Penn Engineering and Pediatrics in Penn Medicine and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). His research in the Gottardi lab employs “tissue engineering and drug delivery for biomedical problems relating to knees, ears, nose, and throat but specifically to pediatric airway disorders.” The article discusses Casila’s journey from valedictorian of his high school, to a first-generation undergraduate interested bioengineering, and now a graduate student studying at Penn on a full scholarship. After completing his degree, Casila hopes to bring what he’s learned back home to advance health care in Guam.
“My mentors, and especially my friends, helped me make the most of what UOG had to offer, and it paid off rewardingly,” he said. “You get what you put in.”
Manuela Teresa Raimondi was appointed Visiting Professor in Bioengineering in the Associated Faculty of the School of Engineering and Applied Science for the 2020-2021 academic year. Raimondi received her Ph.D. in Bioengineering in 2000 from Politecnico di Milano, Italy. She is currently a Full Professor of Bioengineering at Politecnico di Milano in the Department of Chemistry, Materials and Chemical Engineering “G. Natta”, where she teaches the course “Technologies for Regenerative Medicine” in the Biomedical Engineering graduate program.
Raimondi is the founder and Director of the Mechanobiology Lab and of the Interdepartmental Live Cell Imaging lab. She has pioneered the development of cutting edge tools for cell modelling, ranging from micro-engineered stem cell niches, to miniaturized windows for in vivo intravital imaging, to microfluidic culture systems to engineer tissue-equivalents and organoids for cell modelling and drug discovery. Her platforms are currently commercialized by her start-up, MOAB srl. Her research is funded by the European Research Council (ERC), by The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), by the European Commission, and by the European Space Agency.
“Getting to Penn was quite the challenge with the various travel restrictions and the pandemic, but I am used to overcoming adverse odds and I am really excited to be here now,” says Dr. Raimondi. “In this challenging time, when many new barriers are coming up, I think building bridges and new scientific collaborations is even more important. I very much look forward to being part of the Penn research community.”
During her sabbatical at Penn, Raimondi is investigating her hypothesis that stem cells pluripotency reprogramming can be guided by mechanical cues. Over the past five years, she has cultured many different stem cell types in the “Nichoids,” the synthetic stem cell niche she developed, and gathered robust evidence on how physical constraints at the microscale level upregulate pluripotency. Raimondi is hosted in the Bioengineering and Biomaterials Lab of Riccardo Gottardi, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering and in Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine, where she is helping to refine human stem cell sources that could be minimally manipulated for translational tissue engineering for a safe and effective use in regenerative therapies, as a key issue for clinical translation is the maintenance or enhancement of multipotency during cell expansion without exogenous agents or genetic modification.
“Dr. Raimondi is a trailblazer in Italy in regenerative medicine who has introduced many new concepts in a sometimes musty academic environment and has shattered a number of glass ceilings,” says Dr. Gottardi. “I think her sabbatical at Penn is a great opportunity for her and for the Penn community to build new and exciting trans-Atlantic collaborations.”
“Kevin Johnson is a gifted physician-scientist,” Gutmann said, “who has harnessed and aligned the power of medicine, engineering, and technology to improve the health of individuals and communities. He has championed the development and implementation of clinical information systems and artificial intelligence to drive medical research, encouraged the effective use of technology at the bedside, and empowered patients to use new tools to better understand how medications and supplements may affect their health. He is a board-certified pediatrician, and his commitment to patient health and welfare knows no age limits. In so many different settings, Kevin’s work is driving progress in patient care and improving our health care system. He is a perfect fit for Penn, where our goal is to create a maximally inclusive and integrated academic community to spur unprecedented global impact.”
Johnson is currently the Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, where he has taught since 2002. He is a world-renowned innovator in developing clinical information systems that improve best practices in patient safety and compliance with medical practice guidelines, especially the use of computer-based documentation systems and other digital technologies. His research bridges biomedical informatics, bioengineering, and computer science. As senior vice president for health information technology at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center from 2014 to 2019, he led the development of clinical systems that enabled doctors to make better treatment and care decisions for individual patients, in part by alerting patients as to how medications or supplements might affect their body chemistry, as well as new systems to integrate artificial intelligence into patient care workflows and to unify and simplify all the Medical Center’s clinical and administrative systems.
The author of more than 150 publications, books, or book chapters, Johnson has held numerous leadership positions in the American Medical Informatics Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, leads the American Board of Pediatrics Informatics Advisory Committee, directs the Board of Scientific Counselors of the National Library of Medicine, and is a member of the NIH Council of Councils. He has been elected to the National Academy of Medicine (Institute of Medicine), American College of Medical Informatics, and Academic Pediatric Society and has received awards from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Academy of Pediatrics, among many others.
“Kevin Johnson exemplifies our most profound Penn values,” Pritchett said. “He is a brilliant innovator committed to bringing together disciplines across traditional boundaries. Yet he always does so in the service of helping others, finding technological solutions that can make a tangible impact on improving people’s lives. He will be an extraordinary colleague, teacher and mentor across multiple areas of our campus in the years to come.”
Johnson earned an M.D. from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, an M.S. in medical informatics from Stanford University, and a B.S. with honors in biology from Dickinson College. He became the first Black chief resident in pediatrics at Johns Hopkins in 1992, and was a faculty member in both pediatrics and biomedical information sciences at Johns Hopkins until 2002.
The Penn Integrates Knowledge program was launched by Gutmann in 2005 as a University-wide initiative to recruit exceptional faculty members whose research and teaching exemplify the integration of knowledge across disciplines and who are appointed in at least two Schools at Penn.
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.
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.
The Penn Bioengineering virtual seminar series continues on September 24th.
Speaker: Kevin Johnson, M.D., M.S.
Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor and Chair
Department of Biomedical Informatics
Vanderbilt University Medical Center
Date: Thursday, September 24, 2020
Time: 3:00-4:00 pm
Zoom – check email for link or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Title: “Patients, Providers and Data: How the EMR and Data Science are Changing Clinical Care”
The electronic health record (EHR) is a powerful application of Systems Engineering to healthcare. It is a byproduct of a host of pressures including cost, consolidation of providers into networks, uniform drivers of quality, and the need for timely care across disparate socioeconomic and geographic landscapes within health systems. The EHR is also a fulcrum for innovation and one of the most tangible examples of how data science affects our health and health care. In this talk I will showcase projects from my lab that demonstrate the multi-disciplinary nature of biomedical informatics/data science research and translation using the EHR, and our current understanding of its potential from my perspective as a pediatrician, a researcher in biomedical informatics, a Chief Information Officer, an educator, and an advisor to local and international policy. I will describe advances in applying human factors engineering to support medical documentation and generic prescribing, approaches to improve medication safety, and innovations to support precision medicine and interoperability. I will present our efforts to integrate EHR-enabled data science into the Vanderbilt health system and provide a vision for what this could mean for our future.
Kevin B. Johnson, M.D., M.S. is Informatician-in-Chief, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor and Chair of Biomedical Informatics, and Professor Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He received his M.D. from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and his M.S. in Medical Informatics from Stanford University. In 1992 he returned to Johns Hopkins where he served as a Pediatric Chief Resident. He was a member of the faculty in both Pediatrics and Biomedical Information Sciences at Johns Hopkins until 2002, when he was recruited to Vanderbilt University. He also is a Board-Certified Pediatrician.
Dr. Johnson is an internationally respected developer and evaluator of clinical information technology. His research interests have been related to developing and encouraging the adoption of clinical information systems to improve patient safety and compliance with practice guidelines; the uses of advanced computer technologies, including the Worldwide Web, personal digital assistants, and pen-based computers in medicine; and the development of computer-based documentation systems for the point of care. In the early phases of his career, he directed the development and evaluation of evidence-based pediatric care guidelines for the Johns Hopkins Hospital. He has been principal investigator on numerous grants and has been an invited speaker at most major medical informatics and pediatrics conferences. He also was the Chief Informatics Officer at Vanderbilt University Medical Center from 2015-2019.
See the full list of upcoming Penn Bioengineering fall seminars here.
Vector Flow Imaging Helps Visualize Blood Flow in Pediatric Hearts
A group of biomedical engineers at the University of Arkansas used a new ultrasound-based imaging technique called vector flow imaging to help improve the diagnosis of congenital heart disease in pediatric patients. The study, led by associate professor of biomedical engineering Morten Jensen, Ph.D., collaborated with cardiologists at the local Children’s Hospital in Little Rock to produce images of the heart in infants to help potentially diagnose congenital heart defects. Though the use of vector flow imaging has yet to be developed for adult patients, this type of imaging could possibly provide more detail about the direction of blood flow through the heart than traditional techniques like echocardiography do. In the future, the use of both techniques could provide information about both the causes and larger effects of heart defects in patients.
Using Stem Cells to Improve Fertility in Leukemia Survivors
One of the more common side effects of leukemia treatment in female patients is infertility, but researchers at the University of Michigan want to change that. Led by associate professor of biomedical engineering Ariella Shikanov, Ph.D., researchers in her lab found ways of increasing ovarian follicle productivity in mice, which directly relates to the development of mature eggs. The project involves the use of adipose-derived stem cells, that can be found in human fat tissue, to surround the follicles in an ovary-like, three-dimensional scaffold. Because the radiation treatments for leukemia and some other cancers are harmful to follicles, increasing their survival rate with this stem cell method could reduce the rate of infertility in patients undergoing these treatments. Furthermore, this new approach is innovative in its use of a three-dimensional scaffold as opposed to a two-dimensional one, as it stimulates follicle growth in all directions and thus helps to increase the follicle survival rate.
Penn Engineers Look at How Stretching & Alignment of Collagen Fibers Help Cancer Cells Spread
Cancer has such a massive impact on people’s lives that it might be easy to forget that the disease originates at the cellular level. To spread and cause significant damage, individual cancer cells must navigate the fibrous extracellular environment that cells live in, an environment that Penn Engineer Vivek Shenoy has been investigating for years.
Shenoy’s most recent study on cancer’s mechanical environment was led by a postdoctoral researcher in his lab, Ehsan Ban. Paul Janmey, professor in Physiology and Bioengineering, and colleagues at Stanford University also contributed to the study. Shenoy also received the Heilmeier Award this March and delivered the Heilmeier Award Lecture in April.
Controlled Electrical Stimulation Can Prevent Joint Replacement Infections
Joint replacements are one of the most common kinds of surgery today, but they still require intense post-operative therapy and have a risk of infection from the replacement implant. These infections are usually due to the inflammatory response that the body has to any foreign object, and can become serious and life-threatening if left untreated. Researchers at the University of Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences hope to offer a solution to preventing infections through the use of controlled electrical stimulation. Led by Mark Ehrensberger, Ph.D., Kenneth A. Krackow, M.D., and Anthony A. Campagnari, Ph.D., the treatment system uses the electrical signal to create an antibacterial environment at the interface of the body and the implant. While the signal does not prevent infections completely, these antibacterial properties will prevent infections from worsening to a more serious level. Patented as the Biofilm Disruption Device TM, the final product uses two electrode skin patches and a minimally invasive probe that delivers the electrical signal directly to the joint-body interface. The researchers behind the design hope that it can help create a more standard way of effectively treating joint replacement infections.
People and Places
For their senior design project, four bioengineering seniors — Gabriel Koo, Ethan Zhao, Daphne Cheung, and Shelly Teng — created a low-cost tuberculosis diagnostic that they called TBx. Using their knowledge of the photoacoustic effect of certain dyes, the platform the group created can detect the presence of lipoarabinomannan in patient urine. The four seniors presented TBx at the Rice360 Design Competition in Houston, Texas this spring, which annually features student-designed low-cost global health technologies.
New Vascularized Patches Could Help Patient Recovery from Heart Attacks
Heart attacks are the result of a stoppage of blood flow to the heart – an interruption to normal function that can result in severe tissue damage, or even tissue death. This loss of healthy tissue function is one of the biggest challenges in treating patients that undergo heart attacks, as the damaged tissue increases their risk of having future attacks. One of the main solutions to this issue right now is the creation of cardiac tissue scaffolds using stem cells to create a platform for new and healthy tissue to grow in vivo. A group of biomedical engineers at Michigan Technological University hopes to expand on this basis by focusing not just on cellular alignment in the scaffold but on that of microvessels too. Led by Feng Zhao, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, the team hopes that this new attention on microvessel organization will improve the vasculature of the scaffolds, and thus improve the success of the scaffolds in vivo, allowing for a better recovery from heart attacks.
Some Stem Cells May Be More Fit Than Others
Stem cells are one of the hottest research areas in the field of bioengineering today. Widely known as the cells in the human embryo that have the ability to eventually transform into specific cells for the brain, lung, and every other organ, stem cells are also of recent interest because researchers found ways to reverse this process, transforming organ-specific cells back to the pluripotent stem cell level. This achievement however, is mostly applicable to individual stem cells, and doesn’t fully encapsulate the way this process might work on a larger population level. So Peter Zandstra, Ph. D., a bioengineering faculty member at the University of British Columbia, decided to research just that.
Using mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs), Zandstra and his lab attempted to track the cells throughout their reprogramming, to more clearly trace each back to its respective parent population. Surprisingly, they found that after only one week of reprogramming, nearly 80% of the original cell population had been removed, meaning that most of the parent generation was not “fit” enough to undergo the process of reprogramming, indicating that perhaps some stem cells will have a better chance of survival in this process than others. This research may suggest that not all cells have the capacity to undergo reprogramming, as many researchers originally thought.
A New Microdevice Will Help Model Bronchial Spasms
The difficulty in breathing associated with asthma is the result of bronchial spasms, which are a kind of muscle contraction in the airways. But little was known about just how these spasms occurred in patients, so Andre Levchenko, Ph.D., Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins, and his lab created a microdevice to model them. Calling the device a “bronchi on a chip,” Levchenko and his team used a microphysiological model to look at some of the biochemical and mechanical signals associated with these kinds of muscle contractions. They found that the contractions operate in a positive feedback system, so that those caused by disturbance from allergens will subsequently cause even more contractions to occur. But surprisingly, they also found that a second contraction, if triggered at the right time during the initial contraction, could actually stop the process and allow the muscles to relax. Because asthma is a notoriously difficult disease to translate from animal to human models, this new device opens the door to understanding different mechanisms of asthma before taking research to clinical trials.
New CHOP Research Center to Focus Research on Pediatric Airway Disorders
A new bioengineering lab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia called the Center for Pediatric Airway Disorders will specialize in a variety of airway procedures for pediatric patients such as tracheal reconstruction and recurrent laryngeal nerve reinnervation. This new lab will be one of the first to give a unique focus to the application of bioengineering to pediatric laryngology. The interdisciplinary center brings together students and researchers from all different fields, including materials science and microbiology, to find new ways of repairing tissue and regenerating organs related to respiratory disorders. Specific areas of research will involve the modeling of children’s vocal cords, understanding the mechanisms of fibrosis, and improving surgical procedures.
Deeper Understanding of Sickle Cell Anemia Could Lead to New Treatments
Though sickle cell anemia is a common and well-known disease, a new study of its causes at the nanoscale level might reveal previously unknown information about the assembly of hemoglobin fibers. Using microscopes with the ability to visualize these molecules at such a small level, researchers at the University of Minnesota found that the beginning organizations that lead to sickle cell anemia are much less ordered than originally thought. Led by Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering David Wood, Ph.D., the team of researchers used this higher level of microscopy to find that hemoglobin self-assembly process, which was originally thought to be 96% efficient, is actually only 4% efficient. Wood hopes that this new knowledge will help allow for the development of new and better treatments for patients with sickle cell anemia, as there are currently only two FDA-approved ones on the market.
People & Places
Penn Today asked five Penn researchers about the women in STEM who have been a source of inspiration and encouragement throughout their own careers. Their responses include active researchers who have paved the way for better inclusion in STEM and famous female scientists from the past who broke boundaries as they made strides with their research.
This week, we want to congratulate Joel Boerckel, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering, and his lab on receiving a second R01 Grant from the National Institute of Arthritis and and Musculoskeletal Skin Diseases for their work on defining the roles of YAP and TAZ in embryonic bone morphogenesis and mechanoregulation of fracture repair. Dr. Boerckel is a member of the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory.
We would also like to congratulate Christopher Yip, Ph. D., on being appointed as the new dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering. A professor in both the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, Dr. Yip’s research involves the use of molecular imaging to understand the self-assembly of proteins.