The CiPD Partners with the Mack Institute for Innovation and Management to Develop Tooth-Brushing Robots

by Melissa Pappas

Left to right: Hong-Huy Tran, Chrissie Jaruchotiratanasakul, Manali Mahajan (Photo Courtesy of CiPD)

The Center for Innovation and Precision Dentistry (CiPD), a collaboration between Penn Engineering and Penn Dental Medicine, has partnered with Wharton’s Mack Institute for Innovation Management on a research project which brings robotics to healthcare. More specifically, this project will explore potential uses of nanorobot technology for oral health care. The interdisciplinary partnership brings together three students from different Penn programs to study the commercialization of a new technology that detects and removes harmful dental plaque.

“Our main goal is to bring together dental medicine and engineering for out-of-the-box solutions to address unresolved problems we face in oral health care,” says Hyun (Michel) Koo, Co-Founding Director of CiPD and Professor of Orthodontics. “We are focused on affordable solutions and truly disruptive technologies, which at the same time are feasible and translatable.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

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

To learn more about this interdisciplinary research, please visit CiPD.

This press release has been adapted from the original published by the Mack Institute for Innovation Management.

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.

Precision Pulmonary Medicine: Penn Engineers Target Lung Disease with Lipid Nanoparticles

by Ian Scheffler

Penn Engineers have developed a way to target lung diseases, including lung cancer, with lipid nanoparticles (LNPs). (wildpixel via Getty Images)

Penn Engineers have developed a new means of targeting the lungs with lipid nanoparticles (LNPs), the miniscule capsules used by the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to deliver mRNA, opening the door to novel treatments for pulmonary diseases like cystic fibrosis. 

In a paper in Nature Communications, Michael J. Mitchell, Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, demonstrates a new method for efficiently determining which LNPs are likely to bind to the lungs, rather than the liver. “The way the liver is designed,” says Mitchell, “LNPs tend to filter into hepatic cells, and struggle to arrive anywhere else. Being able to target the lungs is potentially life-changing for someone with lung cancer or cystic fibrosis.”

Previous studies have shown that cationic lipids — lipids that are positively charged — are more likely to successfully deliver their contents to lung tissue. “However, the commercial cationic lipids are usually highly positively charged and toxic,” says Lulu Xue, a postdoctoral fellow in the Mitchell Lab and the paper’s first author. Since cell membranes are negatively charged, lipids with too strong a positive charge can literally rip apart target cells.  

Typically, it would require hundreds of mice to individually test the members of a “library” of LNPs — chemical variants with different structures and properties — to find one with a low charge that has a higher likelihood of delivering a medicinal payload to the lungs.

Instead, Xue, Mitchell and their collaborators used what is known as “barcoded DNA” (b-DNA) to tag each LNP with a unique strand of genetic material, so that they could inject a pool of LNPs into just a handful of animal models. Then, once the LNPs had propagated to different organs, the b-DNA could be scanned, like an item at the supermarket, to determine which LNPs wound up in the lungs. 

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

A Moonshot for Obesity: New Molecules, Inspired by Space Shuttles, Advance Lipid Nanoparticle Delivery for Weight Control

by Ian Scheffler

Like space shuttles using booster rockets to breach the atmosphere, lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) equipped with the new molecule more successfully deliver medicinal payloads. (Love Employee via Getty Images)

Inspired by the design of space shuttles, Penn Engineering researchers have invented a new way to synthesize a key component of lipid nanoparticles (LNPs), the revolutionary delivery vehicle for mRNA treatments including the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, simplifying the manufacture of LNPs while boosting their efficacy at delivering mRNA to cells for medicinal purposes.

In a paper in Nature Communications, Michael J. Mitchell, Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, describes a new way to synthesize ionizable lipidoids, key chemical components of LNPs that help protect and deliver medicinal payloads. For this paper, Mitchell and his co-authors tested delivery of an mRNA drug for treating obesity and gene-editing tools for treating genetic disease. 

Previous experiments have shown that lipidoids with branched tails perform better at delivering mRNA to cells, but the methods for creating these molecules are time- and cost-intensive. “We offer a novel construction strategy for rapid and cost-efficient synthesis of these lipidoids,” says Xuexiang Han, a postdoctoral student in the Mitchell Lab and the paper’s co-first author. 

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

“Switchable” Bispecific Antibodies Pave Way for Safer Cancer Treatment

by Nathi Magubane

Bispecific T cell engagers are emerging as a powerful class of immunotherapy to treat cancer but are sometimes hindered by unwanted outcomes, such as on-target, off-tumor toxicity; cytokine release syndrome; and neurotoxicity. Now, researchers Penn researchers have developed a novel “switchable” bispecific T cell engager that mitigates these negative effects by co-opting a drug already approved by the FDA. (Image: iStock / CIPhotos)

In the ever-evolving battle against cancer, immunotherapy presents a turning point. It began with harnessing the body’s immune system to fight cancer, a concept rooted more than a century ago but only gaining significant momentum in recent years. Pioneering this shift were therapies like CAR T cell therapy, which reprograms a patient’s T cells to attack cancer cells. Within this domain, bispecific T cell engagers, or bispecific antibodies, have emerged as effective treatments for many blood-borne cancers in the clinic and are being evaluated for solid tumor therapy.

These antibodies simultaneously latch onto both a cancer cell and a T cell, effectively bridging the gap between the two. This proximity triggers the T cells to unleash their lethal arsenal, thereby killing the cancer cells. However, bispecific T cell engagers, like many cancer therapies, face hurdles such as cell-specific targeting limitations, known as on-target off-tumor toxicity, which means the tumor is correctly targeted but so are other healthy cells in the body, leading to healthy tissue damage. Moreover, bispecific antibodies may also lead to immune system overactivation, a precursor for cytokine release syndrome (CRS), and neurotoxicity.

Now, researchers led by Michael Mitchell of the University of Pennsylvania have found a way to circumvent many of these deleterious effects by developing a bispecific T cell nanoengager that is equipped with an “off switch.” Their findings are published in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

“We’re excited to show that bispecific antibodies can be tweaked in a way that allows us to tap into their powerful cancer-killing potential without inducing toxicity to healthy tissues,” says Mitchell, associate professor of bioengineering at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “This new controllable drug-delivery mechanism, which we call switchable bispecific T cell nanoengagers, or SiTEs, adds this switchable component to the antibody via administering an FDA-approved small-molecule drug, amantadine.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Researchers Breathe New Life into Lung Repair

by Nathi Magubane

Image: iStock/Mohammed Haneefa Nizamudeen

In the human body, the lungs and their vasculature can be likened to a building with an intricate plumbing system. The lungs’ blood vessels are the pipes essential for transporting blood and nutrients for oxygen delivery and carbon dioxide removal. Much like how pipes can get rusty or clogged, disrupting normal water flow, damage from respiratory viruses, like SARS-CoV-2 or influenza, can interfere with this “plumbing system.”

In a recent study, researchers looked at the critical role of vascular endothelial cells in lung repair. Their work, published in Science Translational Medicine, was led by Andrew Vaughan of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine and shows that, by using techniques that deliver vascular endothelial growth factor alpha (VEGFA) via lipid nanoparticles (LNPs), that they were able to greatly enhance modes of repair for these damaged blood vessels, much like how plumbers patch sections of broken pipes and add new ones.

“While our lab and others have previously shown that endothelial cells are among the unsung heroes in repairing the lungs after viral infections like the flu, this tells us more about the story and sheds light on the molecular mechanisms at play,” says Vaughan, assistant professor of biomedical sciences at Penn Vet. “Here we’ve identified and isolated pathways involved in repairing this tissue, delivered mRNA to endothelial cells, and consequently observed enhanced recovery of the damaged tissue. These findings hint at a more efficient way to promote lung recovery after diseases like COVID-19.”

They found VEGFA’s involvement in this recovery, while building on work in which they used single cell RNA sequencing to identify transforming growth factor beta receptor 2 (TGFBR2) as a major signaling pathway. The researchers saw that when TGFBR2 was missing it stopped the activation of VEGFA. This lack of signal made the blood vessel cells less able to multiply and renew themselves, which is vital for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the tiny air sacs of the lungs.

“We’d known there was a link between these two pathways, but this motivated us to see if delivering VEGFA mRNA into endothelial cells could improve lung recovery after disease-related injury,” says first author Gan Zhao, a postdoctoral researcher in the Vaughan Lab.

The Vaughan Lab then reached out to Michael Mitchell of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, whose lab specializes in LNPs, to see if delivery of this mRNA cargo would be feasible.

“LNPs have been great for vaccine delivery and have proven incredibly effective delivery vehicles for genetic information. But the challenge here was to get the LNPs into the bloodstream without them heading to the liver, which is where they tend to congregate as its porous structure lends favor to substances passing from the blood into hepatic cells for filtration,” says Mitchell, an associate professor of bioengineering at Penn Engineering and a coauthor of the paper. “So, we had to devise a way to specifically target the endothelial cells in the lungs.”

Lulu Xue, a postdoctoral researcher in the Mitchell Lab and a co-first author of the paper, explains that they engineered the LNP to have an affinity for lung endothelial cells, this is known as extra hepatic delivery, going beyond the liver.

Read the full story in Penn 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.

How the Hippocampus Distinguishes True and False Memories

by Erica Moser

Image: iStock/metamorworks

Let’s say you typically eat eggs for breakfast but were running late and ate cereal. As you crunched on a spoonful of Raisin Bran, other contextual similarities remained: You ate at the same table, at the same time, preparing to go to the same job. When someone asks later what you had for breakfast, you incorrectly remember eating eggs.

This would be a real-world example of a false memory. But what happens in your brain before recalling eggs, compared to what would happen if you correctly recalled cereal?

In a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University of Pennsylvania neuroscientists show for the first time that electrical signals in the human hippocampus differ immediately before recollection of true and false memories. They also found that low-frequency activity in the hippocampus decreases as a function of contextual similarity between a falsely recalled word and the target word.

“Whereas prior studies established the role of the hippocampus in event memory, we did not know that electrical signals generated in this region would distinguish the imminent recall of true from false memories,” says psychology professor Michael Jacob Kahana, director of the Computational Memory Lab and the study’s senior author. He says this shows that the hippocampus stores information about an item with the context in which it was presented.

Researchers also found that, relative to correct recalls, the brain exhibited lower theta and high-frequency oscillations and higher alpha/beta oscillations ahead of false memories. The findings came from recording neural activity in epilepsy patients who were already undergoing invasive monitoring to pinpoint the source of their seizures.

Noa Herz, lead author and a postdoctoral fellow in Kahana’s lab at the time of the research, explains that the monitoring was done through intracranial electrodes, the methodology researchers wanted to use for this study. She says that, compared to scalp electrodes, this method “allowed us to more precisely, and directly, measure the neural signals that were generated in deep brain structures, so the activity we are getting is much more localized.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Michael Kahana is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Psychology in the School of Arts & Sciences and director of the Computational Memory Lab at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

A Suit of Armor for Cancer-fighting Cells

by Nathi Magubane

Chimeric antigen receptor T cell (CAR T) therapy has delivered promising results, transforming the fight against various forms of cancer, but for many, the therapy comes with severe and potentially lethal side effects. Now, a research team led by Michael Mitchell of the School of Engineering and Applied Science has found a solution that could help CAR T therapies reach their full potential while minimizing severe side effects. (Image: iStock / Meletios Verras)

In recent years, cancer researchers have hailed the arrival of chimeric antigen receptor T cell (CAR T) therapy, which has delivered promising results, transforming the fight against various forms of cancer. The process involves modifying patients’ T-cells to target cancer cells, resulting in remarkable success rates for previously intractable forms of cancer.

Six CAR T cell therapies have secured FDA approval, and several more are in the pipeline. However, these therapies come with severe and potentially lethal side effects, namely cytokine release syndrome (CRS) and neurotoxicity. These drawbacks manifest as a range of symptoms—from high fever and vomiting to multiple organ failure and patient death—posing significant challenges to broader clinical application.

Now, a research team led by Michael Mitchell, associate professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania, has found a solution that could help CAR T therapies reach their full potential while minimizing severe side effects. Their findings are published in the journal Nature Materials.

“Addressing CRS and neurotoxicity without compromising the therapeutic effectiveness of CAR T cells has been a complex challenge,” says Mitchell.

He says that unwanted interactions between CAR T and immune cells called macrophages drive the overactivation of macrophages, which in turn result in the release of toxic cytokines that lead to CRS and neurotoxicity.

“Controlling CAR T-macrophage interactions in vivo is difficult,” Mitchell says. “So, our study introduces a materials engineering-based strategy that involves incorporating a sugar molecule onto the surface of CAR T cells. These sugars are then used as a reactive handle to create a biomaterial coating around these cells directly in the body, which acts as a ‘suit of armor,’ preventing dangerous interactions with macrophages.”

First author Ningqiang Gong, a postdoctoral researcher in the Mitchell Lab, elaborates on the technique, “We attached this sugar molecule to the CAR T cells using metabolic labeling. This modification enables the CAR T cells to attack cancer cells without any hindrance.”

“When symptoms of CRS begin to manifest, we introduce another molecule—polyethylene glycol (PEG)—to create the suit of armor, which effectively blocks dangerous interactions between these engineered T cells, macrophages, and the tumor cells themselves,” Gong says.

Read the full story in Penn Today.

An Improved Delivery System for mRNA Vaccines Provides More Powerful Protection

by Devorah Fischler

(From left to right) Xuexiang Han, Michael Mitchell and Mohamad-Gabriel Alameh

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.

Now, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Perelman School of Medicine are refining the COVID-19 vaccine, creating an innovative delivery system for even more robust protection against the virus.

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.

Michael Mitchell, associate professor in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, Xuexiang Han, postdoctoral fellow in Mitchell’s lab, and Mohamad-Gabriel Alameh, postdoctoral fellow in Drew Weissman’s lab at Penn Medicine and incoming assistant professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine, recently published their findings in Nature Nanotechnology.

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.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.