Largest-Ever Antibiotic Discovery Effort Uses AI to Uncover Potential Cures in Microbial Dark Matter

by Eric Horvath

Credit: Georgina Joyce

Almost a century ago, the discovery of antibiotics like penicillin revolutionized medicine by harnessing the natural bacteria-killing abilities of microbes. Today, a new study co-led by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that natural-product antibiotic discovery is about to accelerate into a new era, powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

The study, published in Cell, the researchers used a form of AI called machine learning to search for antibiotics in a vast dataset containing the recorded genomes of tens of thousands of bacteria and other primitive organisms. This unprecedented effort yielded nearly one million potential antibiotic compounds, with dozens showing promising activity in initial tests against disease-causing bacteria.

“AI in antibiotic discovery is now a reality and has significantly accelerated our ability to discover new candidate drugs. What once took years can now be achieved in hours using computers” said study co-senior author César de la Fuente, PhD, a Presidential Assistant Professor in Psychiatry, Microbiology, Chemistry, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Bioengineering.

Nature has always been a good place to look for new medicines, especially antibiotics. Bacteria, ubiquitous on our planet, have evolved numerous antibacterial defenses, often in the form of short proteins (“peptides”) that can disrupt bacterial cell membranes and other critical structures. While the discovery of penicillin and other natural-product-derived antibiotics revolutionized medicine, the growing threat of antibiotic resistance has underscored the urgent need for new antimicrobial compounds.

In recent years, de la Fuente and colleagues have pioneered AI-powered searches for antimicrobials. They have identified preclinical candidates in the genomes of contemporary humans, extinct Neanderthals and Denisovans, woolly mammoths, and hundreds of other organisms. One of the lab’s primary goals is to mine the world’s biological information for useful molecules, including antibiotics.

Read the full story in Penn Medicine News.

How “Invitations” from Penn Medicine Restored Mammogram Completion Rates

by Frank Otto

The first few waves of COVID-19 slowed life across the United States, affecting everything from attending school to eating out for dinner and going on vacation. Segments of health care were also affected: Services that were not considered immediately crucial to fighting the virus were slowed or stopped during the pandemic’s first wave.  

But once Penn Medicine invited patients back to resume normal health care—including preventive care, like screenings for disease—there was some lag in numbers. 

“As we opened up to routine outpatient care, screening rates for situations when patients didn’t have symptoms were not returning back to normal,” said Mitchell Schnall, MD, PhD, FACR, a professor of Radiology, now the senior vice president for Data and Technology Solutions at Penn Medicine, and then the head of a team focused on the “resurgence” efforts to ease patients back into outpatient care. “Although a short delay in health screening is likely not going to cause long-term health problems, we were concerned whether screening rates would stay lower and lead to a long-term impact.”  

Read the full story in Penn Medicine News.

Mitchell Schnall is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Different Brain Structures in Females Lead to More Severe Cognitive Deficits After Concussion Than Males

by Kelsey Geesler

Top: Axons in female and male subject brains Bottom: damaged axons in male and female brains after injury (Credit: Penn Medicine)

Important brain structures that are key for signaling in the brain are narrower and less dense in females, and more likely to be damaged by brain injuries, such as concussion. Long-term cognitive deficits occur when the signals between brain structures weaken due to the injury. The structural differences in male and female brains might explain why females are more prone to concussions and experience longer recovery from the injury than their male counterparts, according to a preclinical study led by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, published this week in Acta Neuropathologica.

Each year, approximately 50 million individuals worldwide suffer a concussion, also referred to as mild traumatic brain injury (TBI). However, there is nothing “mild” about this condition for the more than 15 percent of individuals who suffer persisting cognitive dysfunction, which includes difficulty concentrating, learning and remembering new information, and making decisions.

Although males make up the majority of emergency department visits for concussion, this has been primarily attributed to their greater exposure to activities with a risk of head impacts compared to females. In contrast, it has recently been observed that female athletes have a higher rate of concussion and appear to have worse outcomes than their male counterparts participating in the same sport.

“Clinicians have observed for a long time that females suffer from concussion at higher rates than males in the same sports, and that they take longer to recover cognitive function, but couldn’t explain the underlying mechanisms of this phenomenon,” said senior author Douglas Smith, MD, a professor of Neurosurgery and director of Penn’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair. “The variances in brain structures of females and males not only illuminate why this disparity exists, but also exposes biomarkers, such as axon protein fragments, that can be measured in the blood to determine injury severity, monitor recovery, and eventually help identify and develop treatments that help patients repair these damaged structures and restore cognitive function.”

Read the full story in Penn Medicine News.

Douglas H. Smith is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

2024 Solomon R. Pollack Awards for Excellence in Graduate Bioengineering Research

The Solomon R. Pollack Award for Excellence in Graduate Bioengineering Research is given annually to the most deserving Bioengineering graduate students who have successfully completed research that is original and recognized as being at the forefront of their field. This year, the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania is proud to recognize the work of four outstanding graduates in Bioengineering: William Benman, Alex Chan, Rohan Palanki and Sunghee Estelle Park. 

Read more about the 2024 Solomon R. Pollack awardees and their doctoral research below.

William Benman

Dissertation: “Remote control of cell function using heat and light as inputs”

Will conducts research in the lab of Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, focusing on reprogramming cells so that their basic functions can be regulated artificially using heat and/or light as inputs. The goal of this work ranges from clinical applications, such as localized activation of cell therapies within patients via application of heat, to biological manufacturing, using light to activate production of valuable biologics during key phases of a cell’s life cycle. He earned his undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering from Boston University, where he graduated summa cum laude. At BU, he worked in the lab of Wilson Wong, where he was introduced to synthetic biology. During that time, he worked to develop a genetic logic framework that would allow cells to integrate chemical signals, such that each combination of signals would lead to a different, user-defined combination of genes being expressed. Outside of the lab, Benman enjoys baking and sharing his treats with lab members. He mentored the 2021 Penn iGEM team, which recently published their work in Communications Biology. After graduation, he will start a postdoctoral fellowship in Mikhail Shapiro’s lab at Caltech, where he plans to explore electrogenetics, focusing on how to co-opt electrically active cell types to transmit biochemical information out of the body. He is interested in researching ways to get cells to talk to electronic devices and vice/versa for two way communication, especially in the context of patient monitoring and precision therapies. 

“Will’s Ph.D. work broke new ground across several fields, discovering how certain proteins sense temperature, engineering those proteins for on-demand control of human cells, and building devices to allow us to communicate with cells with precision,” says Bugaj. “He has managed these accomplishments while elevating those around him through mentorship, including of graduate students, scores of undergraduates, and even grade-school students in the community. I am immensely proud of Will and what he has accomplished and am gratified by the recognition from the Sol Pollack award.”

Alex Chan

Dissertation: “Engineering small protein based inhibitors and biodegraders for cytosolic delivery and targeting of the undruggable proteome”

Alex conducts research in the lab of Andrew Tsourkas, Professor in Bioengineering and Co-Director, Center for Targeted Therapeutics and Translational Nanomedicine (CT3N). His research focuses on developing novel cancer therapeutics by engineering protein scaffolds so that they can be efficiently delivered into cells using lipid nanocarriers. These proteins can either behave as oncogenic inhibitors or be imbued with E3 domains for targeted protein degradation. He graduated from The Pennsylvania State University in 2018 with a B.S in Biomedical Engineering. There, he conducted undergraduate research on photo-activated silver nanoparticle miRNA delivery systems and wrote his senior honors thesis on this topic. At Penn, Alex served as a wellness co-chair within GABE (the Graduate Association of Bioengineers) and was awarded a graduate research fellowship program award by the National Science Foundation (NSF GRFP). In his spare time, Chan loves to cook and explore the local restaurant scene (and he thinks Philly is one of the most vibrant food meccas in America). Post-graduation, he plans to explore Asia before starting as a Senior Scientist in the biopharma industry. He intends to continue working on novel biologics-based medicines for unmet medical needs.

“I cannot think of anyone more deserving of this award than Alex,” says Tsourkas. “He not only demonstrates all of the traits that we love to see in our most successful Ph.D. students — intelligence, hard work ethic, and perseverance — but Alex has also exhibited a level of scientific independence that is beyond his years. I cannot wait to see what Alex achieves in the future.”

Rohan Palanki

Dissertation: “Ionizable lipid nanoparticles for in utero gene editing of congenital disease”

Rohan completed his B.S. in Bioengineering from Rice University in 2019 and subsequently matriculated into the Medical Scientist Training Program (M.D./Ph.D.) at the University of Pennsylvania. He conducted his doctoral research as an NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein Pre-Doctoral Fellow in the laboratories of Michael J. Mitchell, Associate Professor in Bioengineering, and William H. Peranteau, Associate Professor of Surgery at CHOP. After defending his thesis in 2024, he returned to medical school to complete his clinical training. He plans to pursue a career as a physician-engineer, conducting translational research at the intersection of biomaterials and genomic medicine. Outside of the lab, Palanki enjoys exploring new restaurants in Philadelphia and cheering on Philadelphia sports teams.

“Rohan pioneered new lipid nanoparticle gene editing technology in the lab that can treat deadly childhood diseases before a child is ever born,” says Mitchell. “Rohan is extremely deserving of this award, and I cannot wait to see what he accomplishes as a physician scientist developing new biomaterial and drug delivery technologies for pediatric applications.”

Sunghee Estelle Park

Dissertation: “Engineering stem cells and organoids on a chip for the study of human health and disease”

Sunghee Estelle Park earned her BMSE and MSME from Korea University and her Ph.D. in Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in July 2023. She conducted doctoral research in the BIOLines Lab of Dan Huh, Associate Professor in Bioengineering. Her Ph.D. research combined principles in developmental biology, stem cell biology, organoids, and organ-on-a-chip technology to develop innovative in vitro models that can faithfully replicate the pathophysiology of various human diseases. Her doctoral dissertation presented engineering approaches to create stem cell derived three-dimensional (3D) miniature models of human organs on a chip that mimic the physiology and function of living human tissues. Park was appointed Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering in the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering at Purdue University beginning January 2024. Her research lab focuses on using engineered tissues and organoid models to understand how biomechanical and biochemical cues direct stem cell differentiation, maturation, and function during development and disease progression, with a particular emphasis on the lung and intestine. 

“With her deep knowledge, extensive experience, and leadership, Estelle led the major undertaking of harnessing the power of microengineering technologies to create more in vivo-like culture environments in my group, and she played a central role in demonstrating the proof-of-concept of generating organoid-based in vitro models that enable new capabilities for studying complex human diseases and developing new therapeutics,” says Huh. “I am extremely proud of her tremendous accomplishments as a trailblazer in this emerging area and have every confidence that her work as an independent investigator will continue to make great contributions to advancing the field.”

Karen Xu Honored with P.E.O. Scholar Award

Karen Xu, a 2024 doctoral graduate in Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of 100 doctoral students in the U. S. and Canada selected to receive a $25,000 Scholar Award from the P.E.O. Sisterhood. 

The P.E.O. Scholar Awards were established in 1991 to provide substantial merit-based awards for women of the United States and Canada who are pursuing a doctoral-level degree at an accredited college or university.  Scholar Awards recipients are a select group of women chosen for their high level of academic achievement and their potential for having a positive impact on society.

The P.E.O., founded January 21, 1869, at Iowa Wesleyan College, Mount Pleasant, Iowa, is a philanthropic educational organization dedicated to supporting higher education for women.  There are approximately 6,000 local chapters in the United States and Canada with nearly a quarter of a million active members.

Xu graduated summa cum laude with a B.S.E. in Biomedical Engineering from Duke University in 2018, after which she joined the M.D.-Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed her Ph.D. in Bioengineering in spring 2024, funded by an NIH NRSA F30 fellowship, and is set to earn her M.D. in 2026. Under the mentorship of Jason Burdick, Bowman Endowed Professor in Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder and Adjunct Professor in Bioengineering in Penn Engineering, and Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor in Orthopaedic Surgery in the Perelman School of Medicine and in Bioengineering in Penn Engineering, her doctoral research has focused on engineering disease models to facilitate therapeutic discoveries. Her doctoral thesis involved the fabrication of hydrogels as tissue mimics to investigate how extracellular environments affect cell behaviors, thereby informing repair of dense connective tissues.

Beyond her research, Xu has taught with the Educational Pipeline Program at the Netter Center and the Perelman School of Medicine, where she hopes to inspire and support the next generation of healthcare workers and scientists.

Arjun Raj Explores Whether Cells Can Learn in 2024 Heilmeier Lecture

Arjun Raj (center) accepts the Heilmeier Award, with Bioengineering Department Chair Ravi Radhakrishnan (left) and Dean Vijay Kumar (right).

Arjun Raj, Professor in Bioengineering at Penn Engineering and in Genetics at the Perelman School of Medicine, has been honored with the 2023-24 George H. Heilmeier Faculty Award for Excellence for “pioneering the development and application of single-cell, cancer-fighting technologies.”

The George H. Heilmeier Faculty Award for Excellence in Research was “established by Penn Engineering for the purpose of recognizing excellence in scholarly activities of the faculty. Named in honor of George H. Heilmeier, it recognizes his extraordinary research career, his leadership in technical innovation and public service, and his loyal and steadfast support of Penn Engineering.”

Dr. Raj delivered his lecture, entitled “Can a Cell Learn?” on April 8, 2024. In this talk, Raj explores whether it is possible for cells to adapt to their environment by learning, thereby overcoming their genetic destiny.

Learn more about, this award, Dr. Raj and his research here. View the lecture recording below.

The Raj Lab for Systems Biology is interested in building a quantitative understanding of cellular function. They develop new tools for quantifying biological processes based on imaging and sequencing and then use those techniques to help us answer questions in molecular and cellular biology. Read more stories featuring Raj in the BE Blog.

Episode 4 of Innovation & Impact: Exploring AI in Engineering

by Melissa Pappas

Susan Davidson, Cesar de la Fuente, Surbhi Goel and Chris Callison-Burch speak on AI in Engineering in episode 4 of the Innovation & Impact podcast.

With AI technologies finding their way into every industry, important questions must be considered by the research community: How can deep learning help identify new drugs? How can large language models disseminate information? Where and how are researchers using AI in their own work? And, how are humans anticipating and defending against potential harmful consequences of this powerful technology?

In this episode of Innovation & Impact, host Susan Davidson, Weiss Professor in Computer and Information Science (CIS), speaks with three Penn Engineering experts about leveraging AI to advance scientific discovery and methods to protect its users. Panelists include:

Chris Callison-Burch, Associate Professor in CIS, who researches the applications of large language models and AI tools in current and future real-world problems with a keen eye towards safety and ethical use of AI;  

Surbhi Goel, Magerman Term Assistant Professor in CIS, who works at the intersection of theoretical computer science and machine learning. Her focus on developing theoretical foundations for modern machine learning paradigms expands the possibilities of deep learning; and

Cesar de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, Psychiatry and Microbiology with a secondary appointment in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, who leads research on technology in the medical field, using computers to find antibiotics in extinct organisms and identify pre-clinical candidates to advance drug discovery. 

Each episode of Penn Engineering’s Innovation & Impact podcast shares insight from leading experts at Penn and Penn Engineering on science, technology and medicine. 

Subscribe to the Innovation & Impact podcast on Apple MusicSpotify or your favorite listening platforms or find all the episodes on our Penn Engineering YouTube channel.

This story originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

Honoring a Life Scientist’s Lifesaving Science

by Nathi Magubane

Carl June (center) is awarded the 2024 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. His innovative contributions to CAR T cell therapy have transformed the approach to treating certain cancers. His co-recipient is Michel Sadelain of Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital (right). Flanking them on the stage are (from left to right) Olivia Wilde, Camille Leahy, and Regina King. (Image: Courtesy of Breakthrough Prize)

In his acceptance speech for the 2024 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, Carl June, a pioneer in cancer treatment, highlighted the people most affected by his groundbreaking work developing CAR T cell immunotherapy: the patients. 

When all other cancer treatments failed them, said June, “instead of giving up, they pushed forward and volunteered for an unproven experimental new treatment. It’s because of these brave volunteers like our first patients Doug Olson, Bob Levis, and Emily Whitehead, that we have now treated over 34,000 cancer patients.” 

June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies (CCI) at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, was honored at the 10th Breakthrough Prize awards ceremony for the development of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell immunotherapy. This is a cancer treatment approach in which each patient’s T cells are modified to target and kill their cancer cells.

Held on Saturday, April 13, and nicknamed the “Oscars of Science,” world-renowned researchers exchanged lab coats for tuxedos at the star-studded Breakthrough Prize awards ceremony hosted by Emmy Award-winning actor and comedian James Corden. Actors Olivia Wilde and Regina King handed June and his co-winner, Michel Sadelain of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the awards.

“We’re so grateful to have some recognition for a lot of years of work on cancer research,” said June at the event. “I think the best thing is that people learn about this, that this came out of research right here in the country. Now there’s been 34,000 people treated and it just started 10 years ago so people need to understand the value of research to make these new breakthrough therapies.” 

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Carl June is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. Read more stories featuring June in the BE Blog.

Study Reveals Inequities in Access to Transformative CAR T Cell Therapy

Image: iStock/PeopleImages

Patients being treated for B-cell non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL) who are part of minority populations may not have equal access to cutting-edge CAR T cell therapies, according to a new analysis led by researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine and published in NEJM Evidence.

CAR T cell therapy is a personalized form of cancer therapy that was pioneered at Penn Medicine and has brought hope to thousands of patients who had otherwise run out of treatment options. Six different CAR T cell therapies have been approved since 2017 for a variety of blood cancers, including B-cell NHL that has relapsed or stopped responding to treatment. Image: iStock/PeopleImages

“CAR T cell therapy represents a major leap forward for blood cancer treatment, with many patients living longer than ever before, but its true promise can only be realized if every patient in need has access to these therapies,” says lead author Guido Ghilardi, a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of senior author Marco Ruella, an assistant professor of hematology-oncology and scientific director of the Lymphoma Program. “From the scientific perspective, we’re constantly working in the laboratory to make CAR T cell therapy work better, but we also want to make sure that when a groundbreaking treatment like this becomes available, it reaches all patients who might be able to benefit.”

Read the full story in Penn Medicine News.

Marco Ruella is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. Read more stories featuring Ruella in the BE Blog.

A Return to Jamaica Brings Seven Student-Invented Devices to Help People and Wildlife

by Melissa Pappas

Students test the GaitMate harness and structure as a tool to help recovering patients walk.

Penn students have been building their knowledge and hands-on experience in places all over the world through Penn Global Seminars. Last May, “Robotics and Rehabilitation” brought Penn students back to the tropical island of Jamaica to collaborate with local university students and make an impact on recovery and quality of life for patients in Kingston and beyond. 

Course leaders Camillo Jose (CJ) Taylor, Raymond S. Markowitz President’s Distinguished Professor in Computer and Information Science (CIS), and Michelle J. Johnson, Associate Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Perelman School of Medicine and Associate Professor in Bioengineering (BE) and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM) at Penn Engineering, brought the first cohort of students to the island in 2019

“CJ and I are both Jamaicans by birth,” says Johnson. “We were both excited to introduce the next generation of engineers to robotics, rehabilitation and the process of culturally sensitive design in a location that we are personally connected to.” 

As they built relationships with colleagues at the University of West Indies, Mona (UWI, Mona) and the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTECH), both Johnson and Taylor worked to tie the goals of the course to the location.

“In the initial iteration of the course, our goal was to focus on the applications of robotics to rehabilitation in a developing country where it is necessary to create solutions that are cost effective and will work in under-resourced settings,” says Taylor. 

Taylor and Johnson wanted to make the course a regular offering, however, due to COVID-related travel restrictions, it wasn’t until last spring that they were able to bring it back. But when they did, they made up for lost time and expanded the scope of the course to include solving health problems for both people and the environment.

“While we started with a focus on people, we realized that the health and quality of life of a community is also impacted by the health of the environment,” says Taylor. “Jamaica has rich terrestrial and marine ecosystems, but those resources need to be monitored and regulated. We ventured into developing robotics tools to make environmental monitoring more effective and cost-friendly.”

One of those student-invented tools was a climate survey drone called “BioScout.” 

“Our aim was to create a drone to monitor the ecosystem and wildlife in Jamaica,” says Rohan Mehta, junior in Systems Science and Engineering. “We wanted to help researchers and rangers who need to monitor wildlife and inspect forest sectors without entering and disturbing territories, but there were no available drones that met all of the following criteria necessary for the specific environment: affordable, modular, water-resistant and easy to repair. So we made our own.”

Another team of students created a smart buoy to reduce overfishing. The buoy was equipped with an alarm that goes off when fishermen get too close to a no-fishing zone.

Five other student teams dove into projects aligned to the original goals of the course. Their devices addressed patients’ decreased mobility due to diabetes, strokes and car accidents. These projects were sponsored by the Sir John Golding Rehabilitation Center.

One of which, the GaitMate, was engineered to help stroke patients who had lost partial muscle control regain their ability to walk.  

“We developed a device that supports a patient’s weight and provides sensory feedback to help correct their form and gait as they walk on a treadmill, ultimately enhancing the recovery process and providing some autonomy to the patient,” says Taehwan Kim, senior in BE. “The device is also relatively cheap and simple, making it an option for a wide variety of physical therapy needs in Jamaica and other countries.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.