The award recognizes faculty who are conducting some of the most innovative and impactful studies in the field of biomedical engineering. Recipients will present their research and be officially recognized at the BMES Annual Meeting in October.
Mitchell is being honored for creating an RNA nanoparticle therapy that stops the spread of the deadly bone marrow cancer multiple myeloma and helps to eliminate it altogether. Known for being difficult to treat, the disease kills over 100,000 people every year.
“We urgently need innovative, effective therapies against this cancer,” Mitchell says. “The nanotechnology we developed can potentially serve as a platform to treat multiple myeloma and other bone marrow-based malignancies.”
Mitchell, along with Christian Figuerora-Espada, a doctoral student in Bioengineering, previously published a study in PNAS describing how their RNA nanoparticle therapy stops multiple myeloma from moving through the blood vessels and mutating. In their current paper in Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering, which expands upon this RNA nanoparticle platform, they show that inhibition of both multiple myeloma migration and adhesion to bone marrow blood vessels, combined with an FDA-approved multiple myeloma therapeutic, extends survival in a mouse model of multiple myeloma.
CAR T cell therapy pioneer Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies (CCI) at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, has been named a winner of the 2024 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for the development of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell immunotherapy, a revolutionary cancer treatment approach in which each patient’s T cells are modified to target and kill their cancer cells. The invention sparked a new path in cancer care, harnessing the power of patients’ own immune systems, a once-elusive goal that brought fresh options for those who could not be successfully treated with conventional approaches.
Founded in 2012, the Breakthrough Prizes are the world’s largest science awards, with $3 million awarded for each of the five main prize categories. June is the sixth Breakthrough Prize laureate from Penn, which joins Harvard and MIT among the institutions whose researchers have been honored with the most Breakthrough Prizes.
“This award is not only a testament to Dr. June’s outstanding contributions to science, but also a shining example of the caliber of discoveries and research which Penn faculty set their sights upon,” said Penn President Liz Magill. “We are immensely proud to have Dr. June as a member of the Penn academic community, and we know that CAR T cell therapy is just the first chapter in an inspiring and lifesaving new era of medicine.”
June is internationally recognized for his role in pioneering the CAR T cell therapy, which led to the first FDA-approved personalized cellular therapy, for children and young adults with the blood cancer known as acute lymphoblastic leukemia, in August of 2017—a step which has spurred five additional approvals of the technique in other blood cancers. June joined Penn in 1999, building momentum for Penn to become a global hub for cell and gene therapy. Gene-modified T cells engineered in June’s lab to retrain a patient’s own immune cells to attack cancer were used in the first clinical trial of CAR T cell therapy in 2010. Some of the earliest children and adults treated have experienced long-lasting remissions of 10 years or more. In addition to the FDA approvals that have made the therapy commercially available to patients across the world, thousands more have benefited from clinical trials testing these transformative treatments, including for the treatment of solid tumors and even autoimmune diseases like lupus.
“Dr. June’s tireless commitment to advancing T cell immunotherapy research has been life-changing for many patients affected by cancer, who have lived longer, fuller lives, thanks to the discoveries made in his lab,” said J. Larry Jameson,executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and dean of the Perelman School of Medicine. “We are proud to see one of Penn’s most esteemed scientists recognized for the impact of his foundational work to develop a new class of cancer immunotherapy treatment.”
For most of modern medicine, cancer drugs have been developed the same way: by designing molecules to treat diseased cells. With the advent of immunotherapy, that changed. For the first time, scientists engineered patients’ own immune systems to recognize and attack diseased cells.
One of the best examples of this pioneering type of medicine is CAR T cell therapy. Invented in the Perelman School of Medicine by Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy, CAR T cell therapy works by collecting T cells from a patient, modifying those cells in the lab so that they are designed to destroy cancerous cells, and reinfusing them into the patient. June’s research led to the first FDA approval for this type of therapy, in 2017. Six different CAR T cell therapies are now approved to treat various types of blood cancers. Carl June, at the flash mob celebration of the FDA approval of the CAR T cell therapy he developed, in August 2017. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine Magazine)
CAR T cell therapy holds the potential to help millions more patients—if it can be successfully translated to other conditions. June and colleagues, including Daniel Baker, a fourth-year doctoral student in the Cell and Molecular Biology department, discuss this potential in a perspective published in Nature.
In the piece, June and Baker highlight other diseases that CAR T cell therapy could be effective.
“CAR T cell therapy has been remarkably successful for blood cancers like leukemias and lymphomas. There’s a lot of work happening here at Penn and elsewhere to push it to other blood cancers and to earlier stage disease, so patients don’t have to go through chemo first,” June says. “Another big priority is patients with solid tumors because they make up the vast majority of cancer patients. Beyond cancer, we’re seeing early signs that CAR T cell therapy could work in autoimmune diseases, like lupus.”
As for which diseases to pursue as for possible future treatment, June says, “essentially it boils down to two questions: Can we identify a population of cells that are bad? And can we target them specifically? Whether that’s asthma or chronic diseases or lupus, if you can find a bad population of cells and get rid of them, then CAR T cells could be therapeutic in that context.”
“What’s exciting is it’s not just theoretical at this point. There have been clinical reports in other autoimmune diseases, including myasthenia gravis and inflammatory myopathy,” Baker says. “But we are seeing early evidence that CAR T cell therapy will be successful beyond cancer. And it’s really opening the minds of people in the field to think about how else we could use CAR T. For example, there’s some pioneering work at Penn from the Epstein lab for heart failure. The idea is that you could use CAR T cells to get rid of fibrotic tissue after a cardiac injury, and potentially restore the damage following a heart attack.”
Baker adds, “there’s no question that over the last decade, CAR T cell therapy has revolutionized cancer. I’m hoping to play a role in bringing these next generation therapies to patients and make a real impact over the next decade. I think there’s potential for cell therapy to be a new pillar of medicine at large, and not just a new pillar of oncology.”
The COVID-19 vaccine swiftly undercut the worst of the pandemic for hundreds of millions around the world. Available sooner than almost anyone expected, these vaccines were a triumph of resourcefulness and skill.
Messenger RNA vaccines, like the ones manufactured by Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech, owed their speed and success to decades of research reinforcing the safety and effectiveness of their unique immune-instructive technology.
In addition to outlining a more flexible and effective COVID-19 vaccine, this work has potential to increase the scope of mRNA vaccines writ large, contributing to prevention and treatment for a range of different illnesses.
mRNA, or messenger ribonucleic acid, is the body’s natural go-between. mRNA contains the instructions our cells need to produce proteins that play important roles in our bodies’ health, including mounting immune responses.
The COVID-19 vaccines follow suit, sending a single strand of RNA to teach our cells how to recognize and fight the virus.
When we hear about gut bacteria, we may think about probiotics and supplements marketed to help with digestion, about how taking antibiotics might affect our intestinal tract, or perhaps about trendy diets that aim to improve gut health.
But two researchers at Penn Medicine think that understanding the microbiome, the entirety of microbial organisms associated with the human body, might be the key to deciphering the fundamental mechanisms that make our bodies work. They think these microbes may work like a call center switchboard, making connections to help different organs, biological systems, and the brain communicate. Maayan Levy, and Christoph Thaiss, both assistant professors of microbiology at the Perelman School of Medicine, argue that the microbiome is instrumental to revealing how signals from the gastrointestinal tract are received by the rest of the body—which may hold the key to understanding inter-organ communication in general. Perelman School of Medicine’s Maayan Levy, and Christoph Thaiss. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine News)
While the gut sends signals to all parts of the body to initiate various biological processes, the mechanisms underlying this communication—and communication between different organs involved in these processes—is relatively unknown.
“The more we learn about the role the microbiome plays in a wide range of diseases— from cancer to neurodegenerative diseases to inflammatory diseases—the more important it becomes to understand what exactly its role is,” says Thaiss. “And hopefully once we understand how it works, we can use the microbiome to treat these diseases.”
Levy and Thaiss joined the faculty at Penn Medicine after completing their graduate studies in 2018. Here, they continue to investigate the role of the microbiome in various biological processes.
In his lab, Thaiss focuses on the impact of the microbiome on the brain. He recently identified species of gut-dwelling bacteria that activate nerves in the gut to promote the desire to exercise. Most recently, Thaiss published a study that identified the cells that communicate psychological stress signals from the brain to the gastrointestinal tract, and cause symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease.
Meanwhile, in her lab, Levy examines how the microbiome influences the development of diseases, like cancer, and other conditions throughout the body.
A recent publication authored by Levy suggested that the ketogenic diet (high fat, low carbohydrate) causes the production of a metabolite called beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), that suppresses colorectal cancer in small animal models.
Now, Levy is collaborating with Bryson Katona, an assistant professor of Medicine in the division of gastroenterology who specializes in gastrointestinal cancers, to investigate whether BHB has the same effect in patients with Lynch syndrome, which causes individuals to have a genetic predisposition to many different kinds of cancer, including colon cancer. These efforts are part of a growing emphasis at Penn on finding methods to intercept cancer in its earliest stages.
“It’s remarkable that we were able to quickly take the findings from our animal models and rapidly design a clinical trial,” Levy says. “One of the most exciting aspects of our work is not only making discoveries about how our bodies work on a biological level, but then being able to work with the world’s leading clinical experts to translate these discoveries into therapies for patients.”
Further, studies led by Levy and Thaiss often utilize human samples and data from the Penn Medicine BioBank, to validate animal model findings in the tissue of human patients suffering from the diseases which they are investigating.
While Levy and Thaiss pursue different research interests with their labs, they also collaborate often, building on their previous research into what the microbiome does, and its role in the biological processes that keep us healthy. Their long-term goal is to learn about the mechanisms by which the gastrointestinal tract influences disease processes in other organs to treat various diseases of the body using the gastrointestinal tract as a noninvasive entry point to the body.
“Some of the most common and devastating diseases in humans—like cancer or neurodegeneration—are difficult to treat because they are no existing therapies that can reach the brain,” says Thaiss. “If we can understand how the gastrointestinal tract interacts with other organs in the body, including the brain, we might be able to develop treatments that ‘send messages’ to these organs through the body’s natural communication pathways.”
“Obviously there is a lot more basic biology to be uncovered before we get there,” adds Levy. “Most importantly, we want to map all the different routes by which the gastrointestinal tract interacts with the body, and how that communication happens.”
The availability of rapid, accessible testing was integral to overcoming the worst surges of the COVID-19 pandemic, and will be necessary to keep up with emerging variants. However, these tests come with unfortunate costs.
Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, the “gold standard” for diagnostic testing, are hampered by waste. They require significant time (results can take up to a day or more) as well as specialized equipment and labor, all of which increase costs. The sophistication of PCR tests makes them harder to tweak, and therefore slower to respond to new variants. They also carry environmental impacts. For example, most biosensor tests developed to date use printed circuit boards, or PCBs, the same materials used in computers. PCBs are difficult to recycle and slow to biodegrade, using large amounts of metal, plastic and non-eco-friendly materials.
In addition, most PCR tests end up in landfills, resulting in material waste and secondary contamination. An analysis by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that, as of February 2022, “over 140 million test kits, with a potential to generate 2,600 tonnes of non-infectious waste (mainly plastic) and 731,000 litres of chemical waste (equivalent to one-third of an Olympic-size swimming pool) have been shipped.”
In order to balance the need for fast, affordable and accurate testing while addressing these environmental concerns, César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, with additional primary appointments in Psychiatry and Microbiology within the Perelman School of Medicine, has turned his attention to the urgent need for “green” testing materials.
The de la Fuente lab has been working on creative ways to create faster and cheaper testing for COVID-19 since the outbreak of the pandemic. Utilizing his lab’s focus on machine biology and the treatment of infectious disease, they created RAPID, an aptly named test that generates results in minutes with a high degree of accuracy. An even more cost-effective version, called LEAD, was created using electrodes made from graphite. A third test, called COLOR, was a low-cost optodiagnostic test printed on cotton swabs.
The team’s latest innovation incorporates the speed and cost-effectiveness of previous tests with eco-friendly materials. In a paper published in Cell Reports Physical Science, the group introduces a new test made from Bacterial Cellulose (BC), an organic compound synthesized from several strains of bacteria, as a substitute for PCBs.
“We need to think big in antibiotics research,” says Cesar de la Fuente. “Over one million people die every year from drug-resistant infections, and this is predicted to reach 10 million by 2050. There hasn’t been a truly new class of antibiotics in decades, and there are so few of us tackling this issue that we need to be thinking about more than just new drugs. We need new frameworks.”
Marrying artificial intelligence with advanced experimental methods, the group has mined the ancient past for future medical breakthroughs. In a recent study published in CellHost and Microbe, the team has launched the field of “molecular de-extinction.”
Our genomes – our genetic material – and the genomes of our ancient ancestors, express proteins with natural antimicrobial properties. “Molecular de-extinction” hypothesizes that these molecules could be prime candidates for safe new drugs. Naturally produced and selected through evolution, these molecules offer promising advantages over molecular discovery using AI alone.
In this paper, the team explored the proteomic expressions of two extinct organisms –Neanderthals and Denisovans, archaic precursors to the human species – and found dozens of small protein sequences with antibiotic qualities. Their lab then worked to synthesize these molecules, bringing these long-since-vanished chemistries back to life.
“The computer gives us a sequence of amino acids,” says de la Fuente. “These are the building blocks of a peptide, a small protein. Then we can make these molecules using a method called ‘solid-phase chemical synthesis.’ We translate the recipe of amino acids into an actual molecule and then build it.”
The team next applied these molecules to pathogens in a dish and in mice to test the veracity and efficacy of their computational predictions.
“The ones that worked, worked quite well,” continues de la Fuente. “In two cases, the peptides were comparable – if not better – than the standard of care. The ones that didn’t work helped us learn what needed to be improved in our AI tools. We think this research opens the door to new ways of thinking about antibiotics and drug discovery, and this first step will allow scientists to explore it with increasing creativity and precision.”
Cosette Tomita, a master’s student in Bioengineering, spoke with Penn Engineering Graduate Admissions about her research in cellular therapy and her path to Penn Engineering.
“What were you doing before you came to Penn Engineering?
After college I wanted to get some industry experience before going to graduate school, so I spent a year working for a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey. I learned a lot—but mostly I learned that I wanted to go back into academia. So I was looking for a more research-oriented position to boost my graduate school applications, and I found a position at Penn’s cyclotron facility. Shortly after that, I applied to the master’s program. I’m still working at the cyclotron, so I’m doing the program part time.
How has your experience in the program been so far?
I love the research I’m doing here. I love the collaboration we have and the fact that I’m able to work with whoever I want to. And I can only say good things about my PI, Robert Mach. He’s a very busy man, but he makes time for his people. And he recognizes when somebody has a lot on their plate and he will go to bat for that person.
What’s your research all about?
The focus of my PI’s lab is on neurodegenerative diseases and opiate use, so we’re looking to make imaging agents and antagonists that can help with the opioid crisis.
For my project, I wanted to look at treating neurodegenerative disease from the perspective of cellular therapy. My PI doesn’t have that expertise, so when I came to him with this idea, he said I should talk to Mark Sellmyer in the bioengineering department. He does a lot of cellular therapies, cell engineering, protein engineering and things of that nature. So his lab is more biological.
I don’t have a grant for my research, so my advisors are supporting it out of their own pockets. They could have said, no, you need to work on this project that’s already going on in the lab. But they gave me the intellectual freedom to do what I wanted to do.”
Ongoing clinical trials have demonstrated that psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD can have rapid and long-lived antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects. A related clinical problem is chronic pain, which is notoriously difficult to treat and often associated with depression and anxiety.
This summer, Ahmad Hammo, a rising third-year student in bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, is conducting a pilot study to explore psilocybin’s potential as a therapy for chronic pain and the depression that often accompanies it.
“There’s a strong correlation between chronic pain and depression, so I’m looking at how a psychedelic might be used for treating both of these things simultaneously,” says Hammo, who is originally from Amman, Jordan.
Hammo’s project focuses on neuropathic pain, pain associated with nerve damage. Like other forms of chronic pain, most experts believe that chronic neuropathic pain is stored in the brain.
“Neuropathic pain can lead to a centralized pain syndrome where the pain is still being processed in the brain,” Cichon says. “It’s as if there’s a loop that keeps playing over and over again, and this chronic form is completely divorced from that initial injury.”
Riccardo Gottardi, Assistant Professor in Pediatrics in the Perelman School of Medicine and in Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, has been named a “Young Innovator of Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering” by Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering, the official journal of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES). Gottardi is Chief Scientist in the Pediatric Airway Frontier Program at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). He leads the Bioengineering and Biomaterials (Bio2) Lab, and was recognized here for his research to prevent subglottic stenosis in children.
Gottardi’s work in subglottic stensosis, a severe narrowing of the airway in response to intubation, was recently profiled in CHOP’s Cornerstone Blog. CHOP’s award press release describes Gottardi’s innovative treatment:
“Prior studies by Dr. Gottardi’s lab used in vitro models to demonstrate that incorporating AMPs into polymer-coated tubes can inhibit bacterial growth and modulate the upper-airway microbiome. In a recent study in Cellular and Molecular Engineering, led by [Bioengineering] PhD student Matthew Aronson of the Gottardi Lab, the researchers went a step further and used both ex vivo and in vivo models to show how their patent-pending antimicrobial peptide-eluting endotracheal tube (AMP-ET) effectively targeted the local airway microbiota, reducing inflammation and resolving stenosis.
‘I am honored to be recognized by Cellular and Molecular Engineering for this exciting and notable award,” Dr. Gottardi said. “We are hopeful that our airway innovation will show similar success in human trials, so that we can improve outcomes for intubated pediatric patients.’”