The Heart and Soul of Innovation: Noor Momin Harnesses the Immune System to Treat Heart Disease

by Ian Scheffler

Noor Momin, Stephenson Foundation Term Assistant Professor of Innovation

While growing up, Noor Momin, who joined the Department of Bioengineering in January as the Stephenson Foundation Term Assistant Professor of Innovation, imagined becoming a physician. Becoming a doctor seemed like a tangible way for someone interested in science to make a difference. Not until college did she realize the impact she could have as a bioengineer instead.

“I was taping microscope slides together,” Momin recalls of her initial experience as an undergraduate researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. “I didn’t even know what a Ph.D. was.”

It wasn’t until co-authoring her first paper, which explores how lipids, the water-repelling molecules that make up cell membranes (and also fats and oils), can switch between more fluid and less fluid arrangements, that Momin understood the degree to which bioengineering can influence medicine. “Someone could potentially use that paper for drug design,” Momin says.

Today, Momin’s research applies her molecular expertise to heart disease, which despite numerous advances in treatment — from coronary artery bypass surgery to cholesterol-lowering statins — remains the primary cause of mortality worldwide.

As Momin sees it, the conventional wisdom of treating the heart like a mechanical pump, whose pipes can be replaced or whose throughput can be treated to prevent clogging in the first place, overshadows the immune system’s critical role in the development of heart disease.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Bioengineers on the Brink of Breaching Blood-brain Barrier

by Nathi Magubane

From left: Emily Han, Rohan Palanki, Jacqueline Li, Michael Mitchell, Dongyoon Kim, and Marshall Padilla of Penn Engineering.

Imagine the brain as an air traffic control tower, overseeing the crucial and complex operations of the body’s ‘airport.’ This tower, essential for coordinating the ceaseless flow of neurological signals, is guarded by a formidable layer that functions like the airport’s security team, diligently screening everything and everyone, ensuring no unwanted intruders disrupt the vital workings inside.

However, this security, while vital, comes with a significant drawback: sometimes, a ‘mechanic’—in the form of critical medication needed for treating neurological disorders—is needed inside the control tower to fix arising issues. But if the security is too stringent, denying even these essential agents entry, the very operations they’re meant to protect could be jeopardized.

Now, researchers led by Michael Mitchell of the University of Pennsylvania are broaching this long-standing boundary in biology, known as the blood-brain barrier, by developing a method akin to providing this mechanic with a special keycard to bypass security. Their findings, published in the journal Nano Letters, present a model that uses lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) to deliver mRNA, offering new hope for treating conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and seizures—not unlike fixing the control tower’s glitches without compromising its security.

“Our model performed better at crossing the blood-brain barrier than others and helped us identify organ-specific particles that we later validated in future models,” says Mitchell, associate professor of bioengineering at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, and senior author on the study. “It’s an exciting proof of concept that will no doubt inform novel approaches to treating conditions like traumatic brain injury, stroke, and Alzheimer’s.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Little Bots That Could Put a Stop to Infectious Disease

Image: Courtesy of iStock / K_E_N

Biofilms—structured communities of microorganisms that create a protective matrix shielding them from external threats, including antibiotics—are responsible for about 80% of human infections and present a significant challenge in medical treatments, often resisting conventional methods.

In a Q&A with Penn Today, Hyun (Michel) Koo of the School of Dental Medicine and Edward Steager of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Penn discuss an innovative approach they’ve partnered on: the use of small-scale robotics, microrobots, to offer a promising solution to tackle these persistent infections, bringing new capabilities and precision to the field of biomedical engineering.

Q: What is the motivation behind opting for tiny robots to tackle infections?

Koo: Treating biofilms is a broad yet unresolved biomedical problem, and conversely, the strategies for tackling biofilms are limited for a number of reasons. For instance, biofilms typically occur on surfaces that can be tricky to reach, like between the teeth in the oral cavity, the respiratory tract, or even within catheters and implants, so treatments for these are usually restricted to antibiotics (or antimicrobials) and other physical methods reliant on mechanical disruption. However, this touches on the problem of antimicrobial resistance: targeting specific microorganisms present in these structures is difficult, so antibiotics often fail to reach and penetrate the biofilm’s protective layers, leading to persistent infections and increased risk of antibiotic resistance.

We needed a way to circumvent these constraints, so Ed and I teamed up in 2017 to develop new, more precise and effective approaches that leverage the engineers’ ability to generate solutions that we, the clinicians and life science researchers, identify.

Read the full interview in Penn Today.

Hyun (Michel) Koo is a professor in the Department of Orthodontics and in the divisions of Pediatric Dentistry and Community Oral Health and the co-founder of the Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry in the School of Dental Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Edward Steager is a senior research investigator in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Sydney Shaffer Wins Christopher J. Marshall Award for Melanoma Research

Sydney Shaffer, M.D., Ph.D.

Sydney Shaffer, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine, was named the 2023 Christopher J. Marshall Award winner by the Society for Melanoma Research (SMR). The award recognizes Shaffer’s contributions to melanoma research on oncogenic signalling and molecular pathogenesis of this disease, as well as her rapid development as a rising star and leader in the field, which have helped to further the SMR’s goal to eradicate melanoma. The award was presented at the SMR annual meeting in Philadelphia in November 2023. 

The Christopher J. Marshall Award was established in 2015 by the SMR in partnership with Melanoma Research Foundation Congress to recognize a student, postdoctoral fellow, or new independent PI who has published a substantial and original contribution to studies of signal transduction and melanoma.

Shaffer joined Penn as an Assistant Professor in 2019. She holds a M.D.-Ph.D. in Medicine and Bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania and conducted postdoctoral research in cancer biology in the lab of Junwei Shi, Associate Professor in Penn Medicine. The Syd Shaffer Lab is an interdisciplinary team which focuses on “understanding how differences between single-cells generate phenotypes such as drug resistance, oncogenesis, differentiation, and invasion [using] a combination of imaging and sequencing technologies to investigate rare single-cell phenomena.” A recent paper in Nature Communications details the team’s method to quantify long-lived fluctuations in gene expression that are predictive of later resistance to targeted therapy for melanoma.

Read the award announcement and the full list of prior winners at the SMR website.

Penn Scientists Reflect on One Year of ChatGPT

by Erica Moser

René Vidal, at the podium, introduces the event “ChatGPT turns one: How is generative AI reshaping science?” Bhuvnesh Jain, left at the table, moderated the discussion with Sudeep Bhatia, Konrad Kording, Andrew Zahrt, and Nick Pangakis.

As a neuroscientist surveying the landscape of generative AI—artificial intelligence capable of generating text, images, or other media—Konrad Kording cites two potential directions forward: One is the “weird future” of political use and manipulation, and the other is the “power tool direction,” where people use ChatGPT to get information as they would use a drill to build furniture.

“I’m not sure which of those two directions we’re going but I think a lot of the AI people are working to move us into the power tool direction,” says Kording, a Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) University professor with appointments in the Perelman School of Medicine and School of Engineering and Applied Science. Reflecting on how generative AI is shifting the paradigm of science as a discipline, Kording said he thinks “it will push science as a whole into a much more collaborative direction,” though he has concerns about ChatGPT’s blind spots.

Kording joined three University of Pennsylvania researchers from the chemistry, political science, and psychology departments sharing their perspectives in the recent panel “ChatGPT turns one: How is generative AI reshaping science?” PIK Professor René Vidal opened the event, which was hosted by the School of Arts & Sciences’ Data Driven Discovery Initiative (DDDI), and Bhuvnesh Jain, physics and astronomy professor and co-faculty director of DDDI, moderated the discussion.

“Generative AI is moving so rapidly that even if it’s a snapshot, it will be very interesting for all of us to get that snapshot from these wonderful experts,” Jain said. OpenAI launched ChatGPT, a large language model (LLM)-based chatbot, on Nov. 30, 2022, and it rapidly ascended to ubiquity in news reports, faculty discussions, and research papers. Colin Twomey, interim executive director of DDDI, told Penn Today that it’s an open question as to how it will change the landscape of scientific research, and the` idea of the event was to solicit colleagues’ opinions on interesting directions in their fields.

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Konrad Paul Kording is Nathan Francis Mossell University Professor in Bioengineering and Computer and Information Science in Penn Engineering and in Neuroscience in the Perelman School of Medicine.

Herman P. Schwan Distinguished Lecture: “Seeing the Unseen: How AI Redefines Bioengineering” (Dorin Comaniciu, Siemens Healthineers)

Dorin Comaniciu, Ph.D.

We hope you will join us for the 2023 Herman P. Schwan Distinguished Lecture by Dr. Dorin Comaniciu, hosted by the Department of Bioengineering.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023
1:00 PM ET
Location: Wu & Chen Auditorium (Levine 101)
The lecture and Q&A will be followed by a light reception in Levine Lobby.

Speaker: Dorin Comaniciu, Ph.D.
Senior Vice President
Artificial Intelligence and Digital Innovations
Siemens Healthineers

About Dorin Comaniciu:

Dr. Comaniciu serves as Senior Vice President for Artificial Intelligence and Digital Innovation at Siemens Healthineers. His scientific contributions to machine intelligence and computational imaging have translated to multiple clinical products focused on improving the quality of care, specifically in the fields of diagnostic imaging, image-guided therapy, and precision medicine.

Comaniciu is a member of the National Academy of Medicine, the Romanian Academy, and a Top Innovator of Siemens. He is a Fellow of the IEEE, ACM, MICCAI Society, and AIMBE, and a recipient of the IEEE Longuet-Higgins Prize for fundamental contributions to computer vision. Recent recognition of his work includes an honorary doctorate from Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.

He has co-authored 550 granted patents and 350 peer-reviewed publications that have received 61,000 citations, with an h-index of 102, in the areas of machine intelligence, medical imaging, and precision medicine.

A graduate of University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Comaniciu received a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering from Rutgers University and a doctorate in electronics and telecommunications from Polytechnic University of Bucharest.

He is an advocate for technological innovations that save and enhance lives, addressing critical issues in global health.

About the Schwan Lecture:

The Herman P. Schwan Distinguished Lecture is in honor of one of the founding members of the Department of Bioengineering, who emigrated from Germany after World War II and helped create the field of bioengineering in the US. It recognizes people with a similar transformative impact on the field of bioengineering.

The NEMO Prize Goes to Research Improving Soft-Tissue Transplant Surgeries

by Melissa Pappas

Daeyeon Lee (left), Oren Friedman (center) and Sergei Vinogradov (right)

Each year, the Nemirovsky Engineering and Medicine Opportunity (NEMO) Prize, funded by Penn Health-Tech, awards $80,000 to a collaborative team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Engineering and Applied Science for early-stage, interdisciplinary ideas.

This year, the NEMO Prize has been awarded to Penn Engineering’s Daeyeon Lee, Russel Pearce and Elizabeth Crimian Heuer Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Oren Friedman, Associate Professor of Clinical Otorhinolaryngology in the Perelman School of Medicine, and Sergei Vinogradov, Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics in the Perelman School of Medicine and the Department of Chemistry in the School of Arts & Sciences. Together, they are developing a new therapy that improves the survival and success of soft-tissue grafts used in reconstructive surgery.

More than one million people receive soft-tissue reconstructive surgery for reasons such as tissue trauma, cancer or birth defects. Autologous tissue transplants are those where cells and tissue such as fat, skin or cartilage are moved from one part of a patient’s body to another. As the tissue comes from the patient, there is little risk of transplant rejection. However, nearly one in four autologous transplants fail due to tissue hypoxia, or lack of oxygen. When transplants fail the only corrective option is more surgery. Many techniques have been proposed and even carried out to help oxygenate soft tissue before it is transplanted to avoid failures, but current solutions are time consuming and expensive. Some even have negative side effects. A new therapy to help oxygenate tissue quickly, safely and cost-effectively would not only increase successful outcomes of reconstructive surgery, but could be widely applied to other medical challenges. 

The therapy proposed by this year’s NEMO Prize recipients is a conglomerate or polymer of microparticles that can encapsulate oxygen and disperse it in sustainable and controlled doses to specific locations over periods of time up to 72 hours. This gradual release of oxygen into the tissue from the time it is transplanted to the time it functionally reconnects to the body’s vascular system is essential to keeping the tissue alive. 

“The microparticle design consists of an oxygenated core encapsulated in a polymer shell that enables the sustained release of oxygen from the particle,” says Lee. “The polymer composition and thickness can be controlled to optimize the release rate, making it adaptable to the needs of the hypoxic tissue.” 

These life-saving particles are designed to be integrated into the tissue before transplantation. However, because they exist on the microscale, they can also be applied as a topical cream or injected into tissue after transplantation. 

“Because the microparticles are applied directly into tissues topically or by interstitial injection (rather than being administered intravenously), they surpass the need for vascular channels to reach the hypoxic tissue,” says Friedman. “Their micron-scale size combined with their interstitial administration, minimizes the probability of diffusion away from the injury site or uptake into the circulatory system. The polymers we plan to use are FDA approved for sustained-release drug delivery, biocompatible and biodegrade within weeks in the body, presenting minimal risk of side effects.”

The research team is currently testing their technology in fat cells. Fat is an ideal first application because it is minimally invasive as an injectable filler, making it versatile in remodeling scars and healing injury sites. It is also the soft tissue type most prone to hypoxia during transplant surgeries, increasing the urgency for oxygenation therapy in this particular tissue type.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Daeyeon Lee and Sergei Vinogradov are members of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Penn Partners in Multi-University Research Center Supporting Healthy Pregnancies

by Andrew Smith

How does the placenta keep harmful substances away from developing babies while still providing proper nutrition?

(Photo: Getty Images)

The exact mechanisms remain unknown, which is why the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers University, Tulane University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Rochester have joined together to launch a research center dedicated to solving this mystery and ensuring healthy pregnancies.

A $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will help fund the Integrated Transporter Elucidation Center (InTEC), which will operate from the Rutgers Biomedical Health Sciences campus in Piscataway under the leadership of Lauren Aleksunes, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Rutgers’ Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy and resident scientist in the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOHSI).

“Since my time working as a community pharmacist, I have found the lack of high-quality information about the safety of everyday products on the health of a pregnancy frustrating,” says Aleksunes.  “People need to know whether the chemicals in their diet, personal care products and medications can impact their babies. Our goal at InTEC is to better understand how these chemicals travel in and out of the placenta and if they can reach the baby and influence their development.”

Aleksunes will study how transporter proteins carrying nutrients, dietary supplements, medications and toxic chemicals work during pregnancies. Some of the work will test how individual placenta cells respond to various stimuli in the laboratory. Others on the team will examine how environmental factors influence placental transporters during healthy and unhealthy or complicated pregnancies. 

Key to this work will be Dan Huh, Associate Professor in Bioengineering in Penn Engineering, who will lead a team with an innovative approach to modeling the transfer of molecules across the human placenta. 

As a pioneer of organ-on-a-chip technology, the Huh group will use a novel microengineered system in which maternal tissue engineered from a layer of primary human trophoblasts is grown adjacent to a three-dimensional network of perfusable fetal blood vessels to mimic the human placental barrier. This microphysiological system will be employed as an in vitro platform to simulate and quantitatively analyze the exchange of various substances between maternal and fetal circulation without the need for laboratory animals or placenta explants.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

César de la Fuente Named ELHM Scholar by National Academy of Medicine

César de la Fuente, Ph.D.

César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, Psychiatry, Microbiology, and in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has been selected as a 2023 Emerging Leaders in Health and Medicine (ELHM) Scholar by the National Academy of Medicine (NAM). With joint appointments in both Penn Engineering and the Perelman School of Medicine, de la Fuente works to combine human and machine intelligence to accelerate scientific discovery and develop useful tools and life-saving medicines.

NAM, founded in 1970, is an independent organization of professionals that advises the entire scientific community on critical health care issues. Each year, NAM chooses up to 10 new ELHM Scholars who are early-to-mid-career professionals from a wide range of health-related fields, including biomedical engineering, internal medicine, psychiatry, radiology and journalism to serve a three-year term.

“We are delighted that Dr. de la Fuente is receiving recognition from the National Academy of Medicine for his breakthrough contributions and exceptional leadership in the life sciences,” says Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering. “His pioneering work using computers to accelerate antibiotic discovery is extraordinary. We proudly celebrate his selection as part of this outstanding group of scholars.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Penn Bioengineers Awarded 2023 “Accelerating from Lab to Market Pre-Seed” Grants

Congratulations to the members of the Penn Bioengineering community who were awarded 2023 Accelerating from Lab to Market Pre-Seed Grants from the University of Pennsylvania Office of the Vice Provost for Research (OVPR).

Andrew Tsourkas, Ph.D.

Three faculty affiliated with Bioengineering were included among the four winners. Andrew Tsourkas, Professor in Bioengineering and Co-Director of the Center for Targeted Therapeutics and Translational Nanomedicine (CT3N), was awarded for his project titled “Precise labeling of protein scaffolds with fluorescent dyes for use in biomedical applications.” Tsourkas’s team created protein scaffold that can better control the location and orientation of fluorescent dyes, commonly used for a variety of biomedical applications, such as labeling antibodies or fluorescence-guided surgery. The Tsourkas Lab specializes in “creating novel targeted imaging and therapeutic agents for the detection and/or treatment of diverse diseases.”

Also awarded were Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group members Mark Anthony Sellmeyer, Assistant Professor in Radiology in the Perelman School of Medicine, and Rahul M. Kohli, Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Perelman School of Medicine.

From the OVPR website:

“Penn makes significant commitments to academic research as one of its core missions, including investment in faculty research programs. In some disciplines, the path by which discovery makes an impact on society is through commercialization. Pre-seed grants are often the limiting step for new ideas to cross the ‘valley of death’ between federal research funding and commercial success. Accelerating from Lab to Market Pre-Seed Grant program aims to help to bridge this gap.”

Read the full list of winning projects and abstracts at the OVPR website.