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.
The paper-based tests could be integrated directly into facemasks and provide instant results at testing sites.
When Penn Health-Tech announced its Nemirovsky Engineering and Medicine Opportunity, or NEMO Prize, in February, the center’s researchers could only begin to imagine the impact the looming COVID-19 pandemic was about to unleash. But with the promise of $80,000 to support early-stage ideas at the intersection of engineering and medicine, the contest quickly sparked a winning innovation aimed at combating the crisis.
Judges from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Perelman School of Medicine awarded its first NEMO Prize to César de la Fuente, PhD, who proposed a paper-based COVID diagnostic system that could capture viral particles on a person’s breath, then give a result in a matter of seconds when taken to a testing site.
Similar tests for bacteria cost less than a dollar each to make. De la Fuente, a Presidential Assistant Professor in the departments of Psychiatry, Microbiology, and Bioengineering, is aiming to make COVID tests at a similar price point and with a smaller footprint so that they could be directly integrated into facemasks, providing further incentive for their regular use.
“Wearing a facemask is vital to containing the spread of COVID because, before you know you’re sick, they block your virus-carrying droplets so those droplets can’t infect others,” de la Fuente says. “What we’re proposing could eventually lead to a mask that can be infected by the virus and let you know that you’re infected, too.”
De la Fuente’s expertise is in synthetic biology and molecular-scale simulations of disease-causing viruses and bacteria. Having such fine-grained computational models of these microbes’ binding sites allow de la Fuente to test them against massive libraries of proteins, seeing which bind best. Other machine learning techniques can then further narrow down the minimum molecular structures responsible for binding, resulting in functional protein fragments that are easier to synthesize and manipulate.
The spike-shaped proteins that give coronaviruses their crown-like appearance and name bind to a human receptor known as ACE2. De la Fuente and his colleagues are now aiming to characterize the molecular elements and environmental factors that would allow for the most precise, reliable detection of the virus.
In response to the unprecedented challenges presented by the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, Penn Bioengineering’s faculty, students, and staff are finding innovative ways of pivoting their research and academic projects to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. Though these projects are all works in progress, I think it is vitally important to keep those in our broader communities informed of the critical contributions our people are making. Whether adapting current research to focus on COVID-19, investing time, technology, and equipment to help health care infrastructure, or creating new outreach and educational programs for students, I am incredibly proud of the way Penn Bioengineering is making a difference. I invite you to read more about our ongoing projects below.
Novel Chest X-Ray Contrast
David Cormode, Associate Professor of Radiology and Bioengineering
The Cormode and Noel labs are working to develop dark-field X-ray imaging, which may prove very helpful for COVID patients. It involves fabricating diffusers that incorporate gold nanoparticles to modify the X-ray beam. This method gives excellent images of lung structure. Chest X-ray is being used on the front lines for COVID patients, and this could potentially be an easy to implement modification of existing X-ray systems. The additional data give insight into the health state of the microstructures (alveoli) in the lung. This new contrast mechanics could be an early insight into the disease status of COVID-19 patients. For more on this research, see Cormode and Noel’s chapter in the forthcoming volume Spectral, Photon Counting Computed Tomography: Technology and Applications, edited by Katsuyuki Taguchi, Ira Blevis, and Krzysztof Iniewski (Routledge 2020).
Computational Models for Targeting Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). The severe forms of COVID-19 infections resulting in death proceeds by the propagation of the acute respiratory distress syndrome or ARDS. In ARDS, the lungs fill up with fluid preventing oxygenation and effective delivery of therapeutics through the inhalation route. To overcome this major limitation, delivery of antiinflammatory drugs through the vasculature (IV injection) is a better approach; however, the high injected dose required can lead to toxicity. A group of undergraduate and postdoctoral researchers in the Radhakrishnan Lab (Emma Glass, Christina Eng, Samaneh Farokhirad, and Sreeja Kandy) are developing a computational model that can design drug-filled nanoparticles and target them to the inflamed lung regions. The model combines different length-scales, (namely, pharmacodynamic factors at the organ scale, hydrodynamic and transport factors in the tissue scale, and nanoparticle-cell interaction at the subcellular scale), into one integrated framework. This targeted approach can significantly decrease the required dose for combating ARDS. This project is done in collaboration with Clinical Scientist Dr. Jacob Brenner, who is an attending ER Physician in Penn Medicine. This research is adapted from prior findings published in Volume 13, Issue 4 of Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine: “Mechanisms that determine nanocarrier targeting to healthy versus inflamed lung regions” (May 2017).
Sydney Shaffer, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
Arjun Raj, David Issadore, and Sydney Shaffer are working on developing an integrated, rapid point-of-care diagnostic for SARS-CoV-2 using single molecule RNA FISH. The platform currently in development uses sequence specific fluorescent probes that bind to the viral RNA when it is present. The fluorescent probes are detected using a iPhone compatible point-of-care reader device that determines whether the specimen is infected or uninfected. As the entire assay takes less than 10 minutes and can be performed with minimal equipment, we envision that this platform could ultimately be used for screening for active COVID19 at doctors’ offices and testing sites. Support for this project will come from a recently-announced IRM Collaborative Research Grant from the Institute of Regenerative Medicine with matching funding provided by the Departments of Bioengineering and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) (PI’s: Sydney Shaffer, Sara Cherry, Ophir Shalem, Arjun Raj). This research is adapted from findings published in the journal Lab on a Chip: “Multiplexed detection of viral infections using rapid in situ RNA analysis on a chip” (Issue 15, 2015). See also United States Provisional Patent Application Serial No. 14/900,494 (2014): “Methods for rapid ribonucleic acid fluorescence in situ hybridization” (Inventors: Raj A., Shaffer S.M., Issadore D.).
HEALTH CARE INFRASTRUCTURE
Penn Health-Tech Coronavirus COVID-19 Collaborations
Brian Litt, Professor of Bioengineering, Neurology, and Neurosurgery
In his role as one of the faculty directors for Penn Health-Tech, Professor Brian Litt is working closely with me to facilitate all the rapid response team initiatives, and in helping to garner support the center and remove obstacles. These projects include ramping up ventilator capacity and fabrication of ventilator parts, the creation of point-of-care ultrasounds and diagnostic testing, evaluating processes of PPE decontamination, and more. Visit the Penn Health-Tech coronavirus website to learn more, get involved with an existing team, or submit a new idea.
Dr. Maltese is rapidly developing a low-cost ventilator that could be deployed in Penn Medicine for the expected surge, and any surge in subsequent waves. This design is currently under consideration by the FDA for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). This example is one of several designs considered by Penn Medicine in dealing with the patient surge.
David F. Meaney, Solomon R. Pollack Professor of Bioengineering and Senior Associate Dean
Led by David Meaney, Kevin Turner, Peter Bruno and Mark Yim, the face shield team at Penn Health-Tech is working on developing thousands of rapidly producible shields to protect and prolong the usage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Learn more about Penn Health-Tech’s initiatives and apply to get involved here.
Update 4/29/20: The Penn Engineering community has sprung into action over the course of the past few weeks in response to COVID-19. Dr. Meaney shared his perspective on those efforts and the ones that will come online as the pandemic continues to unfold. Read the full post on the Penn Engineering blog.
OUTREACH & EDUCATION
Student Community Building
Yale Cohen, Professor of Otorhinolaryngology, Department of Psychology, BE Graduate Group Member, and BE Graduate Chair
Yale Cohen, and Penn Bioengineering’s Graduate Chair, is working with Penn faculty and peer institutions across the country to identify intellectually engaging and/or community-building activities for Bioengineering students. While those ideas are in progress, he has also worked with BE Department Chair Ravi Radhakrishnan and Undergraduate Chair Andrew Tsourkas to set up a dedicated Penn Bioengineering slack channel open to all Penn Bioengineering Undergrads, Master’s and Doctoral Students, and Postdocs as well as faculty and staff. It has already become an enjoyable place for the Penn BE community to connect and share ideas, articles, and funny memes.
Undergraduate Course: Biotechnology, Immunology, Vaccines and COVID-19 (ENGR 35)
Daniel A. Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
This Summer Session II, Professor Dan Hammer and CBE Senior Lecturer Miriam R. Wattenbarger will teach a brand-new course introducing Penn undergraduates to a basic understanding of biological systems, immunology, viruses, and vaccines. This course will start with the fundamentals of biotechnology, and no prior knowledge of biotechnology is necessary. Some chemistry is needed to understand how biological systems work. The course will cover basic concepts in biotechnology, including DNA, RNA, the Central Dogma, proteins, recombinant DNA technology, polymerase chain reaction, DNA sequencing, the functioning of the immune system, acquired vs. innate immunity, viruses (including HIV, influenza, adenovirus, and coronavirus), gene therapy, CRISPR-Cas9 editing, drug discovery, types of pharmaceuticals (including small molecule inhibitors and monoclonal antibodies), vaccines, clinical trials. Some quantitative principles will be used to quantifying the strength of binding, calculate the dynamics of enzymes, writing and solving simple epidemiological models, methods for making and purifying drugs and vaccines. The course will end with specific case study of coronavirus pandemic, types of drugs proposed and their mechanism of action, and vaccine development.
Update 4/29/20: Read the Penn Engineering blog post on this course published April 27, 2020.
Konrad Kording, Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor of Bioengineering, Neuroscience, and Computer and Information Science
Dr. Kording facilitated Neuromatch 2020, a large virtual neurosciences conferences consisting of over 3,000 registrants. All of the conference talk videos are archived on the conference website and Dr. Kording has blogged about what he learned in the course of running a large conference entirely online. Based on the success of Neuromatch 1.0, the team are now working on planning Neuromatch 2.0, which will take place in May 2020. Dr. Kording is also working on facilitating the transition of neuroscience communication into the online space, including a weekly social (#neurodrinking) with both US and EU versions.
Konrad Kording, Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor of Bioengineering, Neuroscience, and Computer and Information Science
Dr. Kording is working to launch the Neuromatch Academy, an open, online, 3-week intensive tutorial-based computational neuroscience training event (July 13-31, 2020). Participants from undergraduate to professors as well as industry are welcome. The Neuromatch Academy will introduce traditional and emerging computational neuroscience tools, their complementarity, and what they can tell us about the brain. A main focus is not just on using the techniques, but on understanding how they relate to biological questions. The school will be Python-based making use of Google Colab. The Academy will also include professional development / meta-science, model interpretation, and networking sessions. The goal is to give participants the computational background needed to do research in neuroscience. Interested participants can learn more and apply here.
Journal of Biomedical Engineering Call for Review Articles
Beth Winkelstein, Vice Provost for Education and Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor of Bioengineering
The American Society of Medical Engineers’ (ASME) Journal of Biomechanical Engineering (JBME), of which Dr. Winkelstein is an Editor, has put out a call for review articles by trainees for a special issue of the journal. The call was made in March 2020 when many labs were ramping down, and trainees began refocusing on review articles and remote work. This call continues the JBME’s long history of supporting junior faculty and trainees and promoting their intellectual contributions during challenging times.
Update 4/29/20: CFP for the special 2021 issue here.
Are you a Penn Bioengineering community member involved in a coronavirus-related project? Let us know! Please reach out to email@example.com.
Spencer Glantz, a graduate of the Penn Bioengineering doctoral program and former member of the Brian Chow Lab, was mentioned in a recent WHYY piece highlighting the efforts of Penn labs to develop rapid, at-home testing for COVID-19. Glantz is currently a co-leader of the molecular biology team for 4Catalyzer, a medical device incubator founded by National Medal of Technology and Innovation recipient, and sponsor of the annual Rothberg Catalyzer Makerthon competition, Jonathan Rothberg. 4Catalyzer is developing the testing technology while Penn researchers are working to evaluate its effectiveness.
A New Microscopy Technique Could Reduce the Risk of LASIK Surgery
Though over ten million Americans have undergone LASIK vision corrective surgery since the option became available about 20 years ago, the procedure still poses some risk to patients. In addition to the usual risks of any surgery however, LASIK has even more due to the lack of a precise way to measure the refractive properties of the eye, which forces surgeons to make approximations in their measurements during the procedure. In an effort to eliminate this risk, a University of Maryland team of researchers in the Optics Biotech Laboratory led by Giuliano Scarcelli, Ph. D., designed a microscopy technique that would allow for precise measurements of these properties.
Using a form of light-scattering technology called Brillouin spectroscopy, Scarcelli and his lab found a way to directly determine a patient’s refractive index – the quantity surgeons need to know to be able to measure and adjust the way light travels through the eye. Often used as a way to sense mechanical properties of tissues and cells, this technology holds promise for taking three-dimensional spatial observations of these structures around the eye. Scarcelli hopes to keep improving the resolution of the new technique, to further understanding of the eye, and reduce even more of the risks involved with LASIK surgery.
Taking Tissue Models to the Final Frontier
Space flight is likely to cause deleterious changes to the composition of bacterial flora, leading to an increased risk of infection. The environment may also affect the susceptibility of microorganisms within the spacecraft to antibiotics, key components of flown medical kits, and may modify the virulence of bacteria and other microorganisms that contaminate the fabric of the International Space Station and other flight platforms.
“It has been known since the early days of human space flight that astronauts are more prone to infection,” says Dongeun (Dan) Huh, Wilf Family Term Assistant Professor in Bioengineering at Penn Engineering. “Infections can potentially be a serious threat to astronauts, but we don’t have a good fundamental understanding of how the microgravity environment changes the way our immune system reacts to pathogens.”
In collaboration with G. Scott Worthen, a physician-scientist in neonatology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Huh will attempt to answer this question by sending tissues-on-chips to space. Last June, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced that the duo had received funding to study lung host defense in microgravity at the International Space Station.
Huh and Worthen aim to model respiratory infection, which accounts for more than 30 percent of all infections reported in astronauts. The project’s goals are to test engineered systems that model the airway and bone marrow, a critical organ in the immune system responsible for generating white blood cells, and to combine the models to emulate and understand the integrated immune responses of the human respiratory system in microgravity.
Sappi Limited Teams Up with the University of Maine to Develop Paper Microfluidics
At the Westbrook Technology Center of Sappi, a global pulp and paper company, researchers found ways to apply innovations in paper texture for medical use. So far, these include endeavors in medical test devices and patches for patient diagnostics. In collaboration with the Caitlin Howell, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Maine, Sappi hopes to continue advances in these unconventional uses of their paper, especially as the business in paper for publishing purposes declines.
Sappi’s projects with the university focus on the development of paper microfluidics devices as what’s now becoming a widespread solution for obstacles in point-of-care diagnostics. One project in particular, called Sharklet, uses a paper that mimics shark skin as a way to impede unwanted microbial growth on the device – a key characteristic needed for its transition into commercial use. Beyond this example, Sappi’s work in developing paper microfluidics underscores the benefits of these devices in their mass producibility and adaptability.
New Observations of the WNT Pathway Deepen the Understanding of Protein Signaling in Cellular Development
Scientists at Rice University recently found that a protein signaling pathway called WNT, typically associated with its role in early organism development, can both listen for signals from a large amount of triggers and influence cell types throughout embryonic development. These new findings, published in PNAS, add to the already known functions of WNT, deepening our understanding of it and opening the doors to new potential applications of it in stem cell research.
Led by Aryeh Warmflash, Ph. D., researchers discovered that the WNT pathway is different between stem cells and differentiated cells, contrary to prior belief that it was the same for both. Using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology, the Warmflash lab observed that the WNT signaling pathway is actually context-dependent throughout the process of cellular development. This research brings a whole new understanding to the way the WNT pathway operates, and could open the doors to new forms of gene therapy and treatments for diseases like cancers that involve genetic pathway mutations.
People and Places
In a recent article from Technical.ly Philly, named Group K Diagnostics on a list of ten promising startups in Philadelphia. Group K Diagnostics founder Brianna Wronko graduated with a B.S.E. from Penn’s Department of Bioengineering in 2017, and her point-of-care diagnostics company raised over $2 million in funding last year. Congratulations Brianna!
We would also like to congratulate Pamela K. Woodward, M.D., on her being named as the inaugural Hugh Monroe Wilson Professor of Radiology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Also a Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the university, Dr. Woodward leads a research lab with a focus on cardiovascular imaging, including work on new standards for diagnosis of pulmonary blood clots and on an atherosclerosis imaging agent.
Lastly, we would like to congratulate all of the following researchers on their election to the National Academy of Engineering:
David Bishop, Ph. D., a professor at the College of Engineering at Boston University whose current research involves the development of personalized heart tissue as an all-encompassing treatment for patients with heart disease.
Joanna Aizenberg, Ph. D., a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University who leads research in the synthesis of biomimetic inorganic materials
Gilda Barabino, Ph. D., the dean of the City College of New York’s Grove School for Engineering whose lab focuses on cartilage tissue engineering and treatments for sickle cell disease.
Karl Deisseroth, M.D., Ph. D., a professor of bioengineering at Stanford University whose research involves the re-engineering of brain circuits through novel electromagnetic brain stimulation techniques.
Rosalind Picard, Ph.D., the founder and director of the Affective Computing Research Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab whose research focuses on the development of technology that can measure and understand human emotion.
And finally, Molly Stevens, Ph. D., the Research Director for Biomedical Material Sciences at the Imperial College of London with research in understanding biomaterial interfaces for biosensing and regenerative medicine.