Week in BioE (August 16, 2019)

by Sophie Burkholder

Electrode Arrays and Star Wars Help to Inspire a New Prosthetic Arm

Brain-controlled prosthetic arm, Wikimedia commons

After nearly fifteen years of work, a new high-tech prosthetic arm from researchers at the University of Utah allows hand amputees to pluck grapes, pick up eggs without breaking them, and even put on their wedding rings. Named after Luke Skywalker’s robotic hand in the Star Wars saga, the LUKE Arm includes sensors that better mimic the way the human body sends information to the brain, allowing users to distinguish between soft and hard surfaces and to perform more complicated tasks. The arm relies heavily on an electrode array invented by University of Utah biomedical engineering professor Richard A. Normann, Ph.D., which is a bundle of microelectrodes that enable a computer to read signals from connected nerves in the user’s forearm.

But the biggest innovation in the use of these electrode arrays for the LUKE Arm is in the way they allow the prosthetic to mimic the sense of feeling on the surface of an object that indicates how much pressure should be applied when handling it. Gregory Clark, Ph.D., an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Utah and the leader of the LUKE Arm project, says the key to improving these functions in the prosthetic was by more closely mimicking the path that this information takes to the brain, as opposed to merely what comprises that sensory information. In the future, Clark hopes to improve upon the LUKE Arm by including more inputs, like one for temperature data, and on making them more portable by eliminating the device’s need for computer connection.

Philly Voice Recognizes the Cremins Lab’s Innovations in Light-Activated Gene-Folding

While technological advancements over the past few decades have opened doors to understanding the topological structures of DNA, we still have far more to learn about how these structures impact and contribute to genome function. But here at Penn, the Cremins Laboratory in 3D Epigenomes and Systems Neurobiology hopes to fix that. Led by Jennifer E. Phillips-Cremins, Ph.D., members of the lab use light-activated dynamic looping (LADL) to better understand the way that genome topological properties and folding can affect protein translation. Cremins and her lab use this technique to force specific genome folds to interact with each other, and create temporary DNA loops that can then be bound together in the presence of blue light for certain proteins in the Arabidopsis plant. Using the data from these tests, researchers can better understand the genome structure-function relationships, and hopefully open the door to new treatments for diseases in which expression or mis-expression of certain genes is the cause.

Artificial Cells Can Deliver Molecules Better than the Real Thing

From pills to vaccines, ways to deliver drugs into the body have been constantly evolving since the early days of medicine.

Now, a new study from an interdisciplinary team led by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania provides a new platform for how drugs could be delivered to their targets in the future. Their work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research focuses on a dendrimersome, a compartment with a lamellar structure and size that mimic a living cell. It can be thought of as the shipping box of the cellular world that carries an assortment of molecules as cargo.

The scientists found that these dendrimersomes, which have a multilayered, onion-like structure, were able to “carry” high concentrations of molecules that don’t like water, which is common in pharmaceutical drugs. They were also able to carry these molecules more efficiently than other commercially available vessels. Additionally, the building block of the cell-like compartment, a janus dendrimer, is classified as an amphiphile, meaning it contains molecules that don’t like water and also molecules that are soluble in water, like lipids, that make up natural membranes.

“This is a different amphiphile that makes really cool self-assembled onions into which we were able to load a bunch of molecular cargos,” says co-author Matthew Good.

Read the rest of the story on Penn Today.

A Warm Evening Bath Could Improve Sleep Quality

In a recent review of over 5,000 sleep studies, biomedical engineering researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found a connection between water-based passive body heating and sleep onset latency, efficiency, and quality. Using meta-analytical tools to compare all of the studies and patient data, lead author and Ph.D. candidate Shahab Haghayegh and his team found that a warm bath in the temperature range of 104-109 degrees Fahrenheit taken 1-2 hours before bed has the ability to improve all three considered sleep categories. This makes sense considering that our body’s Circadian rhythms govern both our sleep cycles and temperature, bringing us to a higher temperature during the day and a lower one at night during sleep. In fact, this lowering of body temperature before sleep is what helps to trigger the onset of sleep, so taking a warm bath and allowing your body to cool down from it before going to sleep enhances the body’s own efforts of naturally cooling down before we go to bed. With this new and comprehensive review, those who suffer from poor sleep quality may soon find solace in temperature regulation therapy systems.

People & Places

With the recent 50th anniversary of the first moon landing by Americans Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins in 1969, ABC News looked back at one of the women involved in the project. Judy Sullivan was a biomedical engineer at the time of the project, and served as the lead engineer of the biomedical system for Apollo 11. In this role, she led studies on the astronauts’ breathing rates and sensor capabilities for the devices being sent into space to help the astronauts monitor their health. For the Apollo 11 mission and a lot of Sullivan’s early work at NASA, she worked on teams of all men, as women were often encouraged to become teachers, secretaries, or homemakers over other professions. Today, Sullivan says she’s thrilled that women have more career options to choose from, and wants to continue seeing more women getting involved in math and science.

We would like to congratulate Sanjay Kumar, M.D., Ph.D., on his appointment as the new Department Chair of Bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Since joining the faculty in 2005, Kumar has received several prestigious awards including the NSF Career Award, the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, and the Berkeley student-voted Outstanding Teacher Award.

 

Week in BioE: March 29, 2019

by Sophie Burkholder

New Studies in Mechanobiology Could Open Doors for Cellular Disease Treatment

When we think of treatments at the cellular level, we most often think of biochemical applications. But what if we began to consider more biomechanical-oriented approaches in the regulation of cellular life and death? Under a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF),Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s (WPI) Head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering Kristen Billiar, Ph.D., performs research that looks at the way mechanical stimuli can affect and trigger programmed cell death.

Billiar, who received his M.S.E. and Ph.D. from Penn, began his research by first noticing the way that cells typically respond to the mechanical stimuli in their everyday environment, such as pressure or stretching, with behaviors like migration, proliferation, or contraction. He and his research team hope to find a way to eventually predict and control cellular responses to their environment, which they hope could open doors to more forms of treatment for disorders like heart disease or cancer, where cellular behavior is directly linked to the cause of the disease.

Self-Learning Algorithm Could Help Improve Robotic Leg Functionality

Obviously, one of the biggest challenges in the field of prosthetics is the extreme difficulty in creating a device that perfectly mimics whatever the device replaces for its user. Particularly with more complex designs that involve user-controlled motion for joints in the limbs or hands, the electrical circuits implemented are by no means a perfect replacement of the neural connections in the human body from brain to muscle. But recently at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering, a team of researchers led by Francisco J. Valero-Cuevas, Ph. D.,  developed an algorithm with the ability to learn new walking tasks and adapt to others without any additional programming.

The algorithm will hopefully help to speed the progress of robotic interactions with the world, and thus allow for more adaptive technology in prosthetics, that responds to and learns with their users. The algorithm Valero-Cuevas and his team created takes inspiration from the cognition involved with babies and toddlers as they slowly learn how to walk, first through random free play and then from pulling on relevant prior experience. In a prosthetic leg, the algorithm could help the device adjust to its user’s habits and gait preferences, more closely mimicking the behavior of an actual human leg.

Neurofeedback Can Improve Behavioral Performance in High-Stress Situations

We’re all familiar with the concept of being “in the zone,” or the feeling of extraordinary focus that we can sometimes have in situations of high-stress. But how can we understand this shift in mindset on a neuroengineering level? Using the principal of the Yerkes-Dodson law, which says that there is a state of brain arousal that is optimal for behavioral performance, a team of biomedical engineering researchers at Columbia University hope to find ways of applying neurofeedback to improving this performance in demanding high-stress tasks.

Led by Paul Sajda, Ph.D., who received his doctoral degree from Penn, the researchers used a brain-computer interface to collect electroencephalography (EEG) signals from users immersed in virtual reality aerial navigation tasks of varying difficulty levels. In doing so, they were able to make connections between stressful situations and brain activity as transmitted through the EEG data, adding to the understanding of how the Yerkes-Dodson law actually operates in the human body and eventually demonstrating that the use of neurofeedback reduced the neural state of arousal in patients. The hope is that neurofeedback may be used in the future to help treat emotional conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Ultrasound Stimulation Could Lead to New Treatments for Inflammatory Arthritis

Arthritis, an autoimmune disease that causes painful inflammation in the joints, is one of the more common diseases among older patients, with more than 3 million diagnosed cases in the United States every year. Though extreme measures like joint replacement surgery are one solution, most patients simply treat the pain with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or the adoption of gentle exercise routines like yoga. Recently however, researchers at the University of Minnesota led by Daniel Zachs, M.S.E., in the Sensory Optimization and Neural Implant Coding Lab used ultrasound stimulation treatment as a way to reduce arthritic pain in mice. In collaboration with Medtronic, Zachs and his team found that this noninvasive ultrasound stimulation greatly decreased joint swelling in mice who received the treatment as opposed to those that did not. They hope that in the future, similar methods of noninvasive treatment will be able to be used for arthritic patients, who otherwise have to rely on surgical remedies for serious pain.

People and Places

Leadership and Inspiration: EDAB’s Blueprint for Engineering Student Life

To undergraduates at a large university, the administration can seem like a mysterious, all-powerful entity, creating policy that affects their lives but doesn’t always take into account the reality of their day-to-day experience. The Engineering Deans’ Advisory Board (EDAB) was designed to bridge that gap and give students a platform to communicate with key decision makers.

The 13-member board meets once per week for 60 to 90 minutes. The executive board, comprised of four members, also meets weekly to plan out action items and brainstorm. Throughout his interactions with the group, board president Jonathan Chen, (ENG ‘19, W ‘19), has found a real kinship with his fellow board members, who he says work hard and enjoy one another’s company in equal measure.

Bioengineering major Daphne Cheung (ENG’19) joined the board as a first-year student because she saw an opportunity to develop professional skills outside of the classroom. “For me, it was about trying to build a different kind of aptitude in areas such as project management, and learning how to work with different kinds of people, including students and faculty, and of course, the deans,” she says.

Read the full story on Penn Engineering’s Medium Blog. Media contact Evan Lerner.

Purdue University College of Engineering and Indiana University School of Medicine Team Up in New Engineering-Medicine Partnership

The Purdue University College of Engineering and the Indiana University School of Medicine recently announced a new Engineering-Medicine partnership, that seeks to formalize ongoing and future collaborations in research between the two schools. One highlight of the partnership is the establishment of a new M.D./M.S. degree program in biomedical engineering that will allow medical students at Indiana University to receive M.S.-level training in engineering technologies as they apply to clinical practice. The goal of this new level of collaboration is to further involve Purdue’s engineering program in the medical field, and to exhibit the benefits that developing an engineering mindset can have for medical students. The leadership of this new partnership includes

Week in BioE (February 28, 2019)

by Sophie Burkholder

Louisiana Tech Sends First All-Female Team to RockOn

A team of faculty and students from Louisiana Tech University will participate in RockOn, a NASA-sponsored workshop on rocketry and engineering. Mechanical Engineering Lecturer Krystal Corbett, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor of bioengineering Mary Caldorera-Moore, Ph.D., will work together to lead the university’s first team of three all-female students at the event. At the program, they will have the chance to work on projects involving components of spacecraft systems, increasing students’ experience in hands-on activities and real-world engineering.

Refining Autism Treatments Using Big Data

Though treatments like therapy and medication exist for patients with autism, one of the biggest challenges that those caring for these patients face is in measuring their effects over time. Many of the markers of progress are qualitative, and based on a given professional’s opinion on a case-by-case basis. But now, a team of researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) hopes to change that with the use of big data.

Juergen Hahn, Ph. D., and his lab recently published a paper in Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience discussing their findings in connecting metabolic changes with behavioral improvements in autistic patients. Their analysis looks for multiple chemical and medical markers simultaneously in data from three distinct clinical trials involving metabolic treatment for patients. Being able to quantitatively describe the effects of current autism treatments would revolutionize clinical trials in the field, and lead to overall better patient care.

Penn Engineers Can Detect Ultra Rare Proteins in Blood Using a Cellphone Camera

One of the frontiers of medical diagnostics is the race for more sensitive blood tests. The ability to detect extremely rare proteins could make a life-saving difference for many conditions, such as the early detection of certain cancers or the diagnosis of traumatic brain injury, where the relevant biomarkers only appear in vanishingly small quantities. Commercial approaches to ultrasensitive protein detection are starting to become available, but they are based on expensive optics and fluid handlers, which make them relatively bulky and expensive and constrain their use to laboratory settings.

Knowing that having this sort of diagnostic system available as a point-of-care device would be critical for many conditions — especially traumatic brain injury — a team of engineers led by Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, David Issadore, Ph.D., at the University of Pennsylvania have developed a test that uses off-the-shelf components and can detect single proteins with results in a matter of minutes, compared to the traditional workflow, which can take days.

Read the full story on Penn Engineering’s Medium blog.

Treating Cerebral Palsy with Battery-Powered Exoskeletons

Cerebral palsy is one of the most common movement disorders in the United States. The disorder affects a patient’s control over even basic movements like walking, so treatments for cerebral palsy often involve the use of assistive devices in an effort to give patients better command over their muscles. Zach Lerner, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and faculty in Northern Arizona University’s Center for Bioengineering Innovation whose research looks to improve these kinds of assistive devices through the use of battery-powered exoskeletons.

Lerner and his lab recently received three grants, one each from the National Institute of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Arabidopsis Biological Resource Center, to continue their research in developing these exoskeletons. Their goal is to create devices with powered assistance at joints like the ankle or knee to help improve patient gait patterns in rehabilitating the neuromuscular systems associated with walking. The team hopes that their work under these new grants will help further advance treatment for children with cerebral palsy, and improve overall patient care.

People & Places

David Aguilar, a 19-year-old bioengineering student at Universitat Internacional de Catalunya made headlines recently for a robotic prosthetic arm that he built for himself using Lego pieces. Due to a rare genetic condition, Aguilar was born without a right forearm, a disability that inspired him to play with the idea of creating his own prosthetic arm from age nine. His design includes a working elbow joint and grabber that functions like a hand. In the future, Aguilar hopes to continue improving his own prosthetic designs, and to help create similar versions of affordable devices for other patients who need them.

This week, we would like to congratulate two recipients of the National Science Foundation’s Career Awards, given to junior faculty that exemplify the role of teacher-scholars in their research. The first recipient we’d like to acknowledge is the University of Arkansas’ Kyle Quinn, Ph.D., who received the award for his work in developing new image analysis methods and models using the fluorescence of two metabolic cofactors. Dr. Quinn completed his Ph.D. here at Penn in Dr. Beth Winkelstein’s lab, and received the Solomon R. Pollack Award for Excellence in Graduate Bioengineering Dissertation Research for his work.

The second recipient of the award we wish to congratulate is Reuben Kraft, Ph.D., who is an Assistant Professor in Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at Penn State. Dr. Kraft’s research centers around developing computational models of the brain through linking neuroimaging and biomechanical assessments. Dr. Kraft also collaborates with Kacy Cullen, Ph.D., who is a secondary faculty member in Penn’s bioengineering department and a member of the BE Graduate Group faculty.

Finally, we’d like to congratulate Dawn Elliott, Ph.D., on being awarded the Orthopaedic Research Society’s Adele L. Boskey, PhD Award, awarded annually to a member of the Society with a commitment to both mentorship and innovative research. Dr. Elliott’s spent 12 years here at Penn as a member of the orthopaedic surgery and bioengineering faculty before joining the University of Delaware in 2011 to become the founding director of the bioengineering department there. Her research focuses primarily on the biomechanics of fibrous tissue in tendons and the spine.

Week in BioE (August 9, 2018)

Converting Fat to Fight Obesity

White fat stories calories and provides the body with insulation.

There are two types of fat in the human body: brown and white. Brown fat, the “good” fat, is rich in mitochondria, which gives it its brown appearance. Whereas white fat stores calories and acts as an insulator, mitochondria-rich brown fat burns energy to produce heat throughout the body and maintains body temperature. White fat, conversely, uses its stored energy to insulate the body and keep its temperature level. While all fat serves a purpose in the body, an excess of white fat cells causes obesity, a condition affecting one in three adults in the U.S. and the root cause of many potential health problems. Finding ways to convert white fat to brown opens a possibility of treating this problem naturally.

A new study in Scientific Reports proposes a clever way to convert fat types. Professor of Biomedical Engineering Samuel Sia, PhD, of the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science, led a team which developed a method of converting white fat into brown using a tissue-grafting technique. After extracting and converting the fat, it can then be transplanted back into the patient. White fat is hard-wired to convert to brown under certain conditions, such as exposure to cold temperatures, so the trick for Dr. Sia’s team was finding a way to make the conversion last for long periods. The studies conducted with mice suggested that using these methods, newly-converted fat stayed brown for a period of two months.

Dr. Sia’s team will proceed to conduct further tests, especially on the subjects’ metabolism and overall weight after undergoing the procedure, and they hope that eventual clinical trials will result in new methods to treat or even prevent obesity in humans.

Cremins Lab Student Appointed Blavatnik Fellow

Linda Zhou is currently pursuing her MD/PhD in Genomics and Computational Biology under the supervision of Dr. Jennifer Phillips-Cremins.

The Perelman School of Medicine named Linda Zhou, a student in BE’s Cremins Laboratory, a Blavatnik Fellow for the 2018-2019 academic year. The selection process for this award is highly competitive, and Linda’s selection speaks to the excellent quality of her scholarship and academic performance. The fellows will be honored in a special ceremony at the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Linda received her B.S. in Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale University and is currently pursuing her M.D./Ph.D. in the Genomics and Computational Biology Program at Penn. “I am honored to be named a Blavatnik Fellow and am extremely excited to continue my graduate studies investigating neurological disorders and the 3D genome,” she said. “This support will be integral to achieving my long term goal of driving scientific discovery that will help treat human disease.”

Linda’s research is overseen by Penn Bioengineering Assistant Professor Jennifer Phillips-Cremins, PhD. “Linda is an outstanding graduate student,” said Dr. Cremins. “It is a true delight to work with her. She is hard working, intelligent, kind, and has extraordinary leadership ability. Her unrelenting search for ground-state truth makes her a shining star.”

The Blavatnik Family Fellowship in Biomedical Research is a new award announced by the Perelman School of Medicine in May of this year. This generous gift from the Blavatnik Family Foundation awards $2 million to six recipients in the Biomedical Graduate Studies Program at Penn for each of the next four years.

Growing Lungs in a Lab

As the demand for lung transplants continues to rise, so does the need for safe and effective transplanted lungs. Bioengineered lungs grown or created in labs are one way of meeting this demand. The problem – as is ever the case with transplants – is the high rate of rejection. The results of success are always better when cells from the patient herself (or autologous cells) are used in the transplanted organ.

Recently Joan Nichols, PhD, Professor of Internal Medicine, and Microbiology and Immunology, at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, successfully bioengineered the first human lung. Her latest study published in Science Translational Medicine describes the next milestone for Dr. Nichols’ lab: successfully transplanting a bioengineered lung into a pig.

These advances are possible due to Dr. Nichols’ work with autologous cells, continuing the trend of “on demand” medicine (i.e. medicine tailor for a specific patient) which we track on this blog. Dr. Nichols’ particular method is to build the structure of a lung (using the harvested organs of dead pigs in this case), de-cellularize the tissue, and then repopulate it with autologous cells from the intended recipient. This way, the host body recognizes the cells as friendly and the likelihood of acceptance increases. While further study is needed before clinical trials can begin, Dr. Nichols and her team see the results as extremely promising and believe that we are on the way to bioengineered human lungs.

Nanoparticles Combat Dental Plaque

Combine a diet high in sugar with poor oral hygiene habits and dental cavities likely result. The sugar triggers the formation of an acidic biofilm (plaque) on the teeth, eroding the surface. Early childhood dental cavities affect one in every four children in the United States and hundreds of millions more globally. It’s a particularly severe problem in underprivileged populations.

In a study published in Nature Communications this week, researchers led by Hyun (Michel) Koo of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine in collaboration with David Cormode of Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and School of Engineering and Applied Science used FDA-approved nanoparticles to effectively disrupt biofilms and prevent tooth decay in both an experimental human-plaque-like biofilm and in an animal model that mimics early-childhood caries.

Dr. David Cormode is Assistant Professor of Radiology and Secondary Faculty in Bioengineering at Penn. His research includes Bioengineering Therapeutics, Devices and Drug Delivery and Biomaterials.

Read the full story at Penn Today. Media contact Katherine Unger Baillie.

Stopping the Flu from Catching On

The flu virus is notoriously contagious, but there may be a way to stop it before it starts. In order for the influenza virus to successfully transport itself into the cells of a human host, it needs a certain protein called hemagglutinin which mediates its entry. By interfering with this vital ingredient, researchers can effectively kill the virus.

A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discusses a method of disrupting the process by which this protein causes the virus to infect its host cells. This discovery could lead to more effective flu vaccines that target the flu virus at its root, rather than current ones which have to keep up with the ongoing changes and mutations of the virus itself. Indeed, the need for different vaccines to address various “strains” of the flu is moot if a vaccine can stop the virus from infecting people in the first place.

This breakthrough results from grants provided by the NSF, the Welch Foundation, and the NIH to Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine. Lead researchers José Onuchic, PhD, Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Chair of Physics and Professor of Chemistry and BioSciences at Rice University; Jianpeng Ma, PhD, Professor of Bioengineering at Rice University and Lodwick T. Bolin Professor of Biochemistry at Baylor College of Medicine; and Qinghua Wang, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at Baylor College of Medicine. Their team will continue to study the important role proteins play in how the flu virus operates.

People and Places

This week, we congratulate a few new leadership appointments in bioengineering. First, the Georgia Institute of Technology appointed Penn BE alumnus Andréas García, PhD, the new Executive Director of the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience. In addition to his new role, Dr. García is also the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering Regents Professor. He conducts research in biomolecular, cellular, and tissue engineering and collaborates with a number of research centers across Georgia Tech. Dr. García graduated with both his M.S.E. and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Bioengineering.

Secondly, the University of Minnesota Institute for Engineering in Medicine (IEM) named the Distinguished McKnight University Professor John Bischof, PhD, their new director. This follows Dr. Bischof’s recent position as interim director for the IEM. Dr. Bischof earned his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, and is currently a faculty member in both the Mechanical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering Departments at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Bischof holds the Carl and Janet Kuhrmeyer Chair in Mechanical Engineering.

At an earlier, but no less impressive, point in his academic career, Tanishq Abraham became the youngest person to graduate with a degree in biomedical engineering. The fifteen year old recently graduated summa cum laude from the University of California, Davis. As part of his graduating research, Abraham – a first-generation Indian-American – designed a device to measure the heart rates of burn victims. Abraham has already been accepted by U.C. Davis for his Ph.D. and plans to continue on to his M.D.

Finally, the work continues to create affordable and well-fitted prosthetics, especially for remote, rural, and underfunded areas both in the U.S. and abroad. Unfortunately, recent studies published by the Centre for Biomedical Engineering at the India Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT) demonstrate the uphill nature of this battle; stating that India alone contains over half a million upper limb amputees. To address this explosive population, researchers and entrepreneurs are using new bioengineering technologies such as digital manufacturing, 3D scanning and printing, and more. The best innovations are those that save time, resources, and money, without sacrificing quality in the prosthetic or patient comfort. Penn Engineering’s Global Biomedical Service (GBS) program similarly responds to this need, as each year students follow an academically rigorous course with a two-week immersive trip to China, where they learn how to create and fit prosthetic limbs for local children in conjunction with Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Week in BioE (July 25, 2018)

Advances in Stem Cell Research

Stem cell therapy has been used to treat a variety of conditions.

A paper published this month in Scientific Reports announced a new a strategy for the treatment of segmental bone defects. The new technique, called Segmental Additive Tissue Engineering (or SATE) comes from a team of researchers with the New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute (NYSCF). A press release from the NYSCF and an accompanying short video (below) describe the breakthrough technique, which will “[allow] researchers to combine segments of bone engineered from stem cells to create large scale, personalized grafts that will enhance treatment for those suffering from bone disease or injury through regenerative medicine.”

Segmental Additive Tissue Engineering from NYSCF on Vimeo.

Ralph Lauren Senior Investigator Guiseppe Maria de Peppo, PhD, and first author Martina Sladkova, PhD, express their hope that this new procedure will help address some of the limitations of bone grafts, such as immune system rejection, the need for growing bones in pediatric patients, and the difficulty of creating larger bone grafts made from patient stem cells.

Elsewhere in stem cell research, the Spanish Agency for Medicines and Medical Devices has given the company Viscofan BioEngineering approval to start clinical trials for stem cell therapy to treat heart failure. Already a world leader in the market for medical collagen, Viscofan is now turning its research toward using collagen (a protein found in the connective tissue of mammals) to strengthen the weakened heart muscle of those with ischemic cardiomyopathy, a type of heart failure and the leading cause of death in the world. This new “Cardiomesh” project includes collaborators from industry, academia, and hospitals to create this elastic and biodegradable product. Viscofan expects to start clinical trials after the summer of this year, and the full details can be found in Viscofan’s press release.

Federal Grant Supports International Bioengineering Research

The Canadian government awarded a $1.65 million federal grant to two top Canadian universities to develop a center based on engineering RNA. The University of Lethbridge and the Université de Sherbrooke will team up with international collaborators from the United States, Germany, France, Australia, and more and to found and develop the Ribonucleic Acid Bioengineering and Innovation Network Collaborative Research and Training Experience over the next six years. This comes as part of the Canadian government’s CREATE initiative, which awards grants to research teams across the country to support research, innovation, and jobs-creation in the sciences. These two universities are national leaders in the field of RNA research, a diverse and interdisciplinary field. This new network will focus on training of both young academics transitioning to industry and entrepreneurs looking to develop new technologies. This project is led by Hans-Joachim Wieden, PhD, Chemistry and Biochemistry faculty at the University of Lethbridge and an Alberta Innovates Strategic Chair in RNA Bioengineering.

Lehigh University Awarded Grant in Ebola Research

Close to Philadelphia in Allentown, PA, researchers at Lehigh University received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to support their research into one of the deadliest of modern diseases, the Ebola virus, which is highly infectious and currently without vaccine or cure. Entitled “TIM Protein-Mediated Ebola Virus-Host Cell Adhesion: Experiments and Models,” the goal of this research is to create a “predictive and quantitative model of the Ebola Virus (EBOV)-host cell interactions at the molecular through single-virus levels.” Building on past research, the investigators ultimately hope to provide the first quantitative study of this type of cell interaction. By studying how EBOV enters the body through healthy cells, the aim is to understand how it works and ultimately develop a technique to stop its entry. The lead investigator, Anand Jagota, PhD, is the current Professor and Founding Chair of Lehigh University’s Bioengineering program.

New Research in Brain Tumor Removal

The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) awarded a grant to Fake (Frank) Lu, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton in support of his research to design more accurate techniques for the removal of brain tumors. His technique, called Stimulated Raman Scattering or SRS, is a mode of identifying molecules during surgery which can be used to create a highly detailed and accurate image. Dr. Lu’s SRS techniques will improve both the speed of the surgery and the accuracy of the tissue removal. With this grant support, Dr. Lu’s team will collaborate with local universities and hospitals on collecting more data as their next step before making the technology more widely available.

People and Places

Undergraduate students at our neighbor Drexel University received the Robert Noyce Scholarship, an NSF program that supports students seeking their teacher certification in science and math at the middle school level. The co-investigators and undergraduates are from a variety of disciplines and programs across the university, including co-investigator Donald L. McEachron, PhD, Teaching Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems. The students’ curriculum in the DragonsTeach Middle Years program will combine rigorous preparation for teaching STEM subjects and the foundational knowledge to work with under-served schools.

Another group of students, this time from California State University, Long Beach, used their victory in the university’s annual Innovation Challenge as an opportunity to launch a startup called Artemus Labs. Their first product, “Python,” uses body heat other physical sensations to regulate a prosthetic liner, useful in making sure prosthetic limbs are comfortable for the wearer. The students explained that their idea was driven by need, as few prosthetic manufacturers prioritize such factors as temperature or sweat regulation in the creation of their products.

Finally, the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering has a new Chair of Biomedical Engineering: Professor K. Kirk Shung, PhD. Dr. Shung obtained his doctorate from the University of Washington and joined USC in 2002. With a background in electrical engineering, Dr. Shung’s research focuses on high frequency ultrasonic imaging and transducer development, and has been supported by a NIH grant as well as won multiple awards from the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), among others.

Week in BioE (July 9, 2018)

A New Treatment for Joint Dysfunction

TMD is a common condition affecting movement of the jaw

Medical researchers have long been baffled by the need to find safe and effective treatment for a common condition called temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMD). Affecting around twenty-five percent of the adult population worldwide, TMD appears overwhelmingly in adolescent, premenopausal women. Many different factors such as injury, arthritis, or grinding of the teeth can lead to the disintegration of or damage to the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which leads to TMD, although the root cause is not always clear. A type of temporomandibular disorder,  TMD can result in chronic pain in the jaw and ears, create difficulty eating and talking, and even cause occasional locking of the joint, making it difficult to open or close one’s mouth.  Surgery is often considered a last resort because the results are often short-lasting or even dangerous.

The state of TMD treatment may change with the publication of a study in Science Translational Medicine. With contributions from researchers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), UC Davis, and the University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston, this new study has successfully implanted engineered discs made from rib cartilage cells into a TMJ model. The biological properties of the discs are similar enough to native TMJ cells to more fully reduce further degeneration of the joint as well as potentially pave the way for regeneration of joints with TMD.

Senior author Kyriacos Athanasiou, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering at UCI, states the next steps for the team of researchers include a long-term study to ensure ongoing effectiveness and safety of the implants followed by eventual clinical trials. In the long run, this technique may also prove useful and relevant to the treatment of other types of arthritis and joint dysfunction.

Advances in Autism Research

Currently, diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has been limited entirely to clinical observation and examination by medical professionals. This makes the early identification and treatment of ASD difficult as most children cannot be accurately diagnosed until around the age of four, delaying the treatment they might receive. A recent study published in the journal of Bioengineering & Translational Medicine, however, suggests that new blood tests may be able to identify ASD with a high level of accuracy, increasing the early identification that is key to helping autistic children and their families. The researchers, led by Juergen Hahn, PhD, Professor and Department Head of Biomedical Engineering at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, hope that after clinical trials this blood test will become commercially available.

In addition to work that shows methods to detect autism earlier, the most recent issue of Nature Biomedical Engineering includes a study to understand the possible causes of autism and, in turn, develop treatments for the disease. The breakthrough technology of Cas9 enzymes allowed researchers to edit the genome, correcting for symptoms that appeared in mice which resembled autism, including exaggerated and repetitive behaviors. This advance comes from a team at the University of California, Berkeley, which developed the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR-Gold to treat symptoms of ASD by injecting the Cas9 enzyme into the brain without the need for viral delivery. The UC Berkeley researchers suggest in the article’s abstract that these safe gene-editing technologies “may revolutionize the treatment of neurological diseases and the understanding of brain function.” These treatments may have practical benefits for the understanding and treatment of such diverse conditions as addiction and epilepsy as well as ASD.

Penn Professor’s Groundbreaking Bioengineering Technology

Our own D. Kacy Cullen, PhD, was recently featured in Penn Today for his groundbreaking research which has led to the first implantable tissue-engineered brain pathways. This technology could lead to the reversal of certain neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease.

With three patents, at least eight published papers, $3.3 million in funding, and a productive go with the Penn Center for Innovation’s I-Corps program this past fall, Dr. Cullen is ready to take this project’s findings to the next level with the creation of a brand new startup company: Innervace. “It’s really surreal to think that I’ve been working on this project, this approach, for 10 years now,” he says. “It really was doggedness to just keep pushing in the lab, despite the challenges in getting extramural funding, despite the skepticism of peer reviewers. But we’ve shown that we’re able to do it, and that this is a viable technology.” Several Penn bioengineering students are involved in the research conducted in Dr. Cullen’s lab, including doctoral candidate Laura Struzyna and recent graduate Kate Panzer, who worked in the lab all four years of her undergraduate career.

In addition to his appointment as a Research Associate Professor of Neurosurgery at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Cullen also serves as a member of Penn’s Department of Bioengineering Graduate Group Faculty, and will teach the graduate course BE 502 (From Lab to Market Place) for the BE Department this fall 2018 semester. He also serves as the director for the Center of Neurotrauma, Neurodegeneration, and Restoration at the VA Medical Center.

New Prosthetics Will Have the Ability to Feel Pain

New research from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) has found a way to address one of the difficult aspects of amputation: the inability for prosthetic limbs to feel. This innovative electronic dermis is worn over the prosthetic, and can detect sensations (such as pain or even a light touch), which are conveyed to the user’s nervous system, closing mimicking skin. The findings of this study were recently published in the journal Science Robotics.

While one might wonder at the value of feeling pain, both researchers and amputees verify that physical sensory reception is important both for the desired realism of the prosthetic or bionic limb, and also to alert the wearer of any potential harm or damage, the same way that heat can remind a person to remove her hand from a hot surface, preventing a potential burn. Professor Nitish Thakor, PhD, and his team hope to make this exciting new technology readily available to amputees.

People and Places

Women are still vastly outnumbered in STEM, making up only twenty percent of the field, and given the need for diversification, researchers, educators, and companies are brainstorming ways to proactively solve this problem by promoting STEM subjects to young women. One current initiative has been spearheaded by GE Healthcare and Milwaukee School of Engineering University (MSOE) who are partnering to give middle school girls access to programs in engineering during their summer break at the MSOE Summer STEM Camp, hoping to reduce the stigma of these subjects for young women. GE Girls also hosts STEM programs with a number of institutions across the U.S.

The National Science Policy Network (NSPN) “works to provide a collaborative resource portal for early-career scientists and engineers involved in science policy, diplomacy, and advocacy.” The NSPN offers platforms and support including grant funding, internships, and competitions. Chaired and led by emerging researchers and professors from around the country, including biomedical engineering PhD student Michaela Rikard of the University of Virginia, the NSPN seeks to provide a network for young scientists in the current political climate in which scientific issues and the very importance of the sciences as a whole are hotly contested and debated by politicians and the public. The NSPN looks to provide a way for scientists to have a voice in policy-making. This new initiative was recently featured in the Scientific American.

Upon its original founding in 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has included the eradication of malaria as part of its mission, pledging around $2 billion to the cause in the years since. One of its most recent initiatives is the funding of a bioengineering project which targets the type of mosquitoes which carry the deadly disease. Engineered mosquitoes (so-called “Friendly Mosquitoes”) would mate in the wild, passing on a mosquito-killing gene to their female offspring (only females bite humans) before they reach maturity. While previous versions of “Friendly Mosquitoes” have been met with success, concerns have been raised about the potential long-term ecological effects to the mosquito population. UK-based partner Oxitec expects to have the new group ready for trials in two years.

 

Week in BioE (August 18, 2017)

SynBio
An embryonic stem cell

SynBio News

Synthetic biology (SynBio) is an important field within bioengineering. Now, SynBio and its relationships with nanotechnology and microbiology will get a big boost with a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation awarded to the lab of Jason Gleghorn, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Delaware. The grant, which comes from the NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, will fund research to determine the interactions between a single virus and single microbe, using microfluidics technology so that the lab staff can examine the interactions in tiny droplets of fluid, rather than using pipettes and test tubes. They believe their research could impact healthcare broadly, as well as perhaps help agriculture by increasing crop yields.

While must SynBio research is medical, the technology is now also being used in making commercial products that will compete with other natural or chemically synthesized products. Antony Evans’s company Taxa Biotechnologies has developed a fragrant moss that he hopes can compete against the sprays and other chemicals you see on the store shelves. Using SynBio principles, Taxa isolates the gene in plants causing odor and transplants these genes to a simple moss in a glass terrarium that, with sufficient sunlight, water, carbon dioxide, will provide one of three scents completely naturally. Technically, the mosses are genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but since people aren’t eating them, they aren’t likely to generate the controversy raised by GMO foods. Taxa has also been working on transplanting bioluminescence genes to plants to provide light without requiring electricity, all as a part of a larger green campaign.

A Few Good Brains

A division of the U.S. Department of Defense, the Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT) program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will fund the research of Stephen Helms Tillery, Ph.D., of the School of Biological & Health Systems Engineering at Arizona State University, who is investigating methods of enhancing cognitive performance using external stimulation. The ASU project is using transdermal electrical neuromodulation to apply electrical stimulation via electrodes placed on the scalp to determine the effects on awareness and concentration. DARPA hopes to obtain insight into how to improve decision making among troops who are actively deployed. The high-stress environment of a military deployment, combined with the fact that soldiers tend to get suboptimal amounts of sleep, leaves them with fatigue that can cloud judgment in moments of life or death. If the DARPA can find a way to alleviate that fatigue and clarify decision-making processes, it would likely save lives.

Circulatory Science

End-stage organ failure can be treated by transplantation, but waiting lists are long and the number of donors still insufficient, so alternatives are continually sought. In the field of regenerative medicine, which is partly dedicated to finding alternatives, scientists at Ohio State have developed a technology called tissue nanotransfection, which can generate any cell type within a patient’s own body. In a paper published in Nature Nanotechnology, professors Chandan Sen and James Lee and their research team describe how they used nanochip technology to reprogram skin cells into vascular cells. After injecting these cells into the injured legs and brains of mice and pigs, they found the cells could help to restore blood flow. The applications to organ systems is potentially limitless.

For cardiac patients whose conditions can be treated without need for a transplant, who make up the vast majority of this cohort,  stents and valve prostheses are crucial tools. However, these devices and the procedures to implant them have high complication rates. Currently, patients receiving prosthetic valves made in part of metal must take blood thinners to prevent clots, and these drugs can greatly diminish quality of life and limit activity, particularly in younger patients. At Cornell, Jonathan Butcher, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering, is developing a prosthetic heart valve with small niches in the material loaded with biomaterials to maintain normal heart function and prevent clotting. While it has been possible for some time to coat the surface of an implant with a drug or chemical to facilitate its integration and function, these niches allow for a larger depot of such a material to be distributed over a longer period of time, increasing the durability of the positive effects of these procedures.

Smartphone Spectrometry

A number of medical diagnoses are accomplished by testing of bodily fluids, and spectrometry is a key technology in this process. However, spectrometers are expensive and usually not very portable, posing a challenge for health professionals working outside of traditional care settings. Now, a team led by Brian Cunningham, Ph.D., from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, has published in Lab on a Chip a paper detailing their creation of a smartphone-integrated spectroscope. Called the spectral Transmission-Reflectance-Intensity (TRI)-Analyzer, it uses microfluidics technology to provide point-of-care analysis to facilitate treatment decisions. The authors liken it to a Swiss army knife in terms of versatility and stress that the TRI Analyzer is less a specialized device than a mobile laboratory. The device costs $550, which is several times less than common lab-based instruments.

New Chair at Stanford

Stanford’s Department of Bioengineering has announced that Jennifer Cochran, Ph.D., will begin a five-year term as department chair beginning on September 1. Dr. Cochran arrived at Stanford in 2005 after earning degrees at the University of Delaware and MIT. Cochran has two connections to Penn – she is currently serving as a member of our department advisory board and completed her postdoctoral training in Penn Medicine. Our heartiest congratulations to her!