In many instances, the physical manifestation of cancers and the ways they are subsequently diagnosed is via a tumor, tissue masses of mutated cells and structures that grow excessively. One of the major mysteries in understanding what goes awry in cancers relates to the environments within which these structures grow, commonly known as the tumor microenvironment.
These microenvironments play a role in facilitating tumor survival, growth, and spread. Tumors can help generate their own infrastructure in the form of vasculature, immune cells, signaling molecules, and extracellular matrices (ECMs), three-dimensional networks of collagen-rich support scaffolding for a cell. ECMs also help regulate cellular communications, and in the tumor microenvironment ECMs can be a key promoter of tumor growth by providing structural support for cancerous cells and in modulating signaling pathways that promote growth.
Now, new research led by the School of Arts & Science’sWei Guo and published in the journal Nature Cell Biology has bridged the complex structural interactions within the tumor microenvironment to the signals that trigger tumor growth. The researchers studied cancerous liver cells grown on ECMs of varying stiffness and discovered that the stiffening associated with tumor growth can initiate a cascade that increases the production of small lipid-encapsulated vesicles known as exosomes.
“By recording the number of packages sent, the addresses on these packages, their contents, and most importantly, how they’re regulated and generated, we can better understand the relationship between a patient’s tumor microenvironment and their unique molecular signaling signatures, hinting at more robust personalized cancer therapies,” Radhakrishnan says.
While studying exosomes in relation to tumor growth and metastasis has been well-documented in recent years, researchers have mostly focused on cataloging their characteristics rather than investigating the many processes that govern the creation and shuttling of exosomes between cells. As members of Penn’s Physical Sciences Oncology Center (PSOC), Guo and Radhakrishnan have long collaborated on projects concerning tissue stiffness. For this paper, they sought to elucidate how stiffening promotes exosome trafficking in cancerous intracellular signaling.
“Our lab previously found that high stiffness promotes the secretion of exosomes,” says Di-Ao Liu, co-first author of the paper and a graduate student in the Guo Lab. “Now, we were able to model the stiffening processes through experiments and identify molecular pathways and protein networks that cause this, which better links ECM stiffening to cancerous signaling.”
Ravi Radhakrishnan, Professor and Chair of the Department of Bioengineering and Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, was named to the 2022 Class of Fellows of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES). BMES, the premier society for biomedical engineers in the U.S., recognizes individuals for their accomplishments, significant contributions and service to the Society and the field of biomedical engineering in their annual Class of Fellows. The incoming Fellows were recognized during the BMES annual meeting on October 13, 2022.
Radhakrishnan’s research interests lie at the interface of chemical physics and molecular biology. The Radhakrishnan Lab’s goal is to provide molecular level and mechanistic characterization of biomolecular and cellular systems and formulate quantitatively accurate microscopic models for predicting the interactions of various therapeutic agents with innate biochemical signaling mechanisms. Radhakrishnan was named BE’s Department Chair in January 2020. He is also a member of the Genomics & Computational Biology (GCB) Graduate Group and is the former director of the Penn Institute for Computational Science (PICS).
Advances in cell and molecular technologies are revolutionizing the treatment of cancer, with faster detection, targeted therapies and, in some cases, the ability to permanently retrain a patient’s own immune system to destroy malignant cells.
However, there are fundamental forces and associated challenges that determine how cancer grows and spreads. The pathological genes that give rise to tumors are regulated in part by a cell’s microenvironment, meaning that the physical push and pull of neighboring cells play a role alongside the chemical signals passed within and between them.
The Penn Anti-Cancer Engineering Center (PACE) will bring diverse research groups from the School of Engineering and Applied Science together with labs in the School of Arts & Sciences and the Perelman School of Medicine to understand these physical forces, leveraging their insights to develop new types of treatments and preventative therapies.
The Center’s founding members are Dennis Discher, Robert D. Bent Professor with appointments in the Departments of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), Bioengineering (BE) and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM), and Ravi Radhakrishnan, Professor and chair of BE with an appointment in CBE.
Discher, an expert in mechanobiology and in delivery of cells and nanoparticles to solid tumors, and Radhakrishnan, an expert on modeling physical forces that influence binding events, have long collaborated within the Physical Sciences in Oncology Network. This large network of physical scientists and engineers focuses on cancer mechanisms and develops new tools and trainee opportunities shared across the U.S. and around the world.
Among the PACE Center’s initial research efforts are studies of the genetic and immune mechanisms associated with whether a tumor is solid or liquid and investigations into how physical stresses influence cell signaling.
We are very pleased to announce that ten current and future graduate students in the Department of Bioengineering have received 2021 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) fellowships. The prestigious NSF GRFP program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported fields. Further information about the program can be found on the NSF website. BE is thrilled to congratulate our excellent students on these well-deserved accolades! Continue reading below for a list of 2021 recipients and descriptions of their research.
Puneeth Guruprasad is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Marco Ruella, Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology/Oncology and the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies at the Perelman School of Medicine. His work applies next generation sequencing methods to characterize tumors and study the genetic basis of resistance to cancer immunotherapy, namely chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy.
Gabrielle (Gabby) Ho is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Brian Chow, Associate Professor in Bioengineering. She works on design strategies for engineering near-infrared fluorescent proteins and tools.
Abbas Idris is a Master’s student in the lab of Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering. His work focuses on using optogenetic tools to develop controllable protein assemblies for the study of cell signaling behaviors.
Additionally, seven NSF GRFP honorees from other institutions will be joining our department as Ph.D. students in the fall of 2021. We congratulate them as well and look forward to welcoming them to Penn:
Kinases are a class of enzymes that are responsible for transferring the main chemical energy source used by the body’s cells. As such, they play important roles in diverse cellular processes, including signaling, differentiation, proliferation and metabolism. But since they are so ubiquitous, mutated versions of kinases are frequently found in cancers. Many cancer treatments involve targeting these mutant kinases with specific inhibitors.
Understanding the exact genetic mutations that lead to these aberrant kinases can therefore be critical in predicting the progression of a given patient’s cancer and tailoring the appropriate response.
To achieve this understanding on a more fundamental level, a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and Perelman School of Medicine, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and researchers at the Yale School of Medicine’s Cancer Biology Institute, have constructed molecular simulations of a mutant kinase implicated in pediatric neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer impacting the central nervous system.
Using their computational model to study the relationship between single-point changes in the kinase’s underlying gene and the altered structure of the protein it ultimately produces, the researchers revealed useful commonalities in the mutations that result in tumor formation and growth. Their findings suggest that such computational approaches could outperform existing profiling methods for other cancers and lead to more personalized treatments.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was led by Ravi Radhakrishnan, Professor and chair of Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering and professor in its Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Mark A. Lemmon, Professor of Pharmacology at Yale and co-director of Yale’s Cancer Biology Institute. The study’s first authors were Keshav Patil, a graduate student in Penn Engineering’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, along with Earl Joseph Jordan and Jin H. Park, then members of the Graduate Group in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. Krishna Suresh, an undergraduate student in Radhakrishnan’s lab, Courtney M. Smith, a graduate student in Lemmon’s lab, and Abigail A. Lemmon, an undergraduate in Lemmon’s lab, contributed to the study. They collaborated with Yaël P. Mossé, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Penn Medicine and in the division of oncology at CHOP.
“Some cancers rely on the aberrant activation of a single gene product for tumor initiation and progression,” says Radhakrishnan. “This unique mutational signature may hold the key to understanding which patients suffer from aggressive forms of the disease or for whom a given therapeutic drug may yield short- or long-term benefits. Yet, outside of a few commonly occurring ‘hotspot’ mutations, experimental studies of clinically observed mutations are not commonly pursued.”
Ravi Radhakrishnan, Professor and Chair of the Department of Bioengineering and Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is among the many faculty who quickly adapted their courses to an online format in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, a recent publication in the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Journal reflects one of these revamped courses. The course BE 559: “Multiscale Modeling of Chemical and Biological Systems” provides theoretical, conceptual, and hands-on modeling experience on three different length and time scales: (1) electronic structure (A, ps); (2) molecular mechanics (100A, ns); and (3) deterministic and stochastic approaches for microscale systems (um, sec). During the course, students gained hands-on experience in running codes on real applications together with the following theoretical formalisms: molecular dynamics, Monte Carlo, free energy methods, deterministic and stochastic modeling. The transition to the online format was greatly facilitated by a grant from the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) which provided cloud and supercomputing resources to the students facilitating the computational laboratory experience. Radhakrishnan’s article, “A survey of multiscale modeling: Foundations, historical milestones, current status, and future prospects,” reviews the foundations, historical developments, and current paradigms in multiscale modeling (MSM).
Huwe earned dual B.S. degrees in Biology and Chemistry in 2009 from Mississippi College, where he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. At Mississippi College, Huwe had his first exposure to computational research in the laboratory of David Magers, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He went on to earn his Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics in 2014 in the laboratory of Ravi Radhakrishnan, Chair of the Bioengineering Department at Penn. As an NSF Graduate Research Fellow in Radhakrishnan’s lab, Huwe focused his research on using computational molecular modeling and simulations to elucidate the functional consequences of protein mutations associated with human diseases. Dr. Huwe then joined the structural bioinformatics laboratory Roland Dunbrack, Jr., Professor at the Fox Chase Cancer Center as a T32 post-doctoral trainee. During his post-doctoral training, Huwe held adjunct teaching appointments at Thomas Jefferson University and at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2017, Huwe became an Assistant Professor of Biology at Temple University, where he taught medical biochemistry, medical genetics, cancer biology, and several other subjects.
During each of his appointments, Huwe became increasingly more passionate about teaching, and he decided to dedicate his career to medical education. Huwe is very excited to be joining Mercer University School of Medicine as an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences this summer. There, he will serve in a medical educator track, primarily teaching first and second year medical students.
“Without Ravi Radhakrishnan and Philip Rea, Professor of Biology in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, giving me my first teaching opportunities as a graduate guest lecturer at Penn, I may never have discovered how much I love teaching,” says Huwe. “And without the support and guidance of each of my P.I.’s [Dr.’s Magers, Radhakrishnan, and Dunbrack], I certainly would not be where I am, doing what I love. I am incredibly thankful for all of the people who helped me in my journey to find my dream job.”
Congratulations and best of luck from everyone in Penn Bioengineering, Dr. Huwe!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Department of Bioengineering is proud to congratulate Whelton Miller, Ph.D., a former BE Postdoctoral Fellow, on his appointment as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine in the Health Sciences Division at Loyola University. Miller’s appointment began in January 2020.
Miller received his B.S. in Biochemistry in 2001 from the University of Delaware where he worked under the supervision of Dr. Douglass F. Taber. After graduation, he worked in industry as a synthetic organic chemist for a pharmaceutical company. After three years of industry experience, he returned to academia to complete a Ph.D. in Theoretical/Computational Chemistry from the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia in 2012.
Miller joined Loyola University in Chicago, IL in the summer of 2019. Now in his new faculty position, Miller continues to work on collaborative research projects and include colleagues at Instituto Tecnológico de Santo Domingo, the University of Pennsylvania, Lincoln University, University of Ghana, and the University of the Sciences. His current research involves using computational chemistry techniques for theoretical design and study of organometallic and inorganic compounds, protein ligand interactions, and structural electronic effects. His goal is to employ several computational techniques to understand, as well as predict, molecular interactions, such as protein-ligand interactions and protein-protein interactions. Miller says he is always looking forward to more opportunities for minority student development and enrichment in the STEM-related disciplines. Congratulations, Dr. Miller!
Radhakrishnan holds joint appointments in the Department of Bioengineering and the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. He is a founding member and the current Director of the Penn Institute for Computational Science, as well as a member of the Penn Physical Sciences in Oncology Center, Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics, and several graduate groups, including Materials Science and Engineering, Genomics and Computational Biology, and Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics.
In addition to these roles at Penn, Radhakrishnan holds many editorial board positions in the research community, including Nature Publishing’s Scientific Reports.
Beyond being a passionate teacher and advocate for his students, Radhakrishnan’s research interests lie at the interface of chemical physics and molecular biology. His lab’s goal is to provide molecular level and mechanistic characterization of biomolecular and cellular systems and formulate quantitatively accurate microscopic models for predicting the interactions of various therapeutic agents with innate biochemical signaling mechanisms.