BE Seminar: “Tissue-Inspired Synthetic Biomaterials” (Shelly Peyton)

Shelly R. Peyton, Ph.D.

Speaker: Shelly R. Peyton, Ph.D.
Professor, Armstrong Professional Development Professor
Chemical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering Adjunct
College of Engineering
University of Massachusetts Amherst

Date: Thursday, December 9, 2021
Time: 3:30-4:30 PM EST
Zoom – check email for link
This seminar will be held virtually, but students registered for BE 699 can gather to watch in Moore 216.

Abstract: Improved experimental model systems are critically needed to better understand cancer progression and bridge the gap between lab bench proof-of-concept studies, validation in animal models, and eventual clinical application. Many methods exist to create biomaterials, including hydrogels, which we use to study cells in contexts more akin to what they experience in the human body. Our lab has multiple approaches to create such biomaterials, based on combinations of poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG) with peptides and zwitterions. In this presentation, I will discuss our synthetic approaches to building life-like materials, how we use these systems to grow cells and understand how a cell’s environment, particularly the extracellular matrix regulates cancer cell growth, dormancy, and drug sensitivity.

Shelly Peyton Bio: Shelly Peyton is the Armstrong Professor and Graduate Program Director, and chair of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee of Chemical Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is co-director of the Models 2 Medicine Center in the Institute for Applied Life Sciences. She received her B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Northwestern University in 2002 and went on to obtain her MS and PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of California, Irvine. She was then an NIH Kirschstein post-doctoral fellow in the Biological Engineering department at MIT before starting her academic appointment at UMass in 2011. Shelly leads an interdisciplinary group of engineers and molecular cell biologists seeking to create and apply novel biomaterials platforms toward new solutions to grand challenges in human health. Her lab’s unique approach is using our engineering expertise to build simplified models of human tissue with synthetic biomaterials. They use these systems to understand 1) the physical relationship between metastatic breast cancer cells and the tissues to which they spread, 2) the role of matrix remodeling in drug resistance, and 3) how to create bioinspired mechanically dynamic and activatable biomaterials. Among other honors for her work, Shelly was a 2013 Pew Biomedical Scholar, received a New Innovator Award from the NIH, and she was awarded a CAREER grant from the NSF. Shelly is co-PI with Jeanne Hardy on the Biotechnology (BTP) NIH T32 program and is a co-PI of the PREP program at UMass, which brings students from URM groups to UMass for a 1-year post-BS study to help prepare them for graduate school.

Penn Bioengineering Senior Raveen Kariyawasam Named 2022 Rhodes Scholar

2022 Rhodes Scholar, Raveen Kariyawasam

One of the two University of Pennsylvania seniors who were awarded Rhodes Scholarships for graduate study at the University of Oxford is Penn Engineering‘s own Raveen Kariyawasam, from Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Kariyawasam is a double major in Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, with concentrations in computational medicine and medical devices, and in the Wharton School, with concentrations in finance and entrepreneurship and innovation.

“We are so proud of our newest Penn Rhodes Scholars who have been chosen for this tremendous honor and opportunity,” said President Amy Gutmann. “The work Raveen has done in health care innovation and accessibility and Nicholas has done to support student well-being while at Penn is impressive, and pursuing a graduate degree at Oxford will build upon that foundation. We look forward to seeing how they make an impact in the future.”

The Rhodes is highly competitive and one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world. The scholarships provide all expenses for as long as four years of study at Oxford University in England.

According to the Rhodes Trust, about 100 Rhodes Scholars will be selected worldwide this year, chosen from more than 60 countries. Several have attended American colleges and universities but are not U.S. citizens and have applied through their home country, including Kariyawasam in Sri Lanka.

With an interest in health care innovation and accessibility, Kariyawasam is involved in several research projects, including his Wharton honors thesis that focuses on optimizing a low-cost electronic medical record system in Sri Lanka and the Philippines. He has received several research grants, including the Vagelos Undergraduate Research Grant, the Berkman Opportunity Fund grant, and the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps grant. At Penn, he is editor-in-chief of Synapse, a student-run health care magazine and is vice president of the Phi Sigma Biological Honor Society. He is a disc jockey for the student-run radio station, WQHS, and an executive board member of the Wharton Undergraduate Healthcare Club. He also is a former student ambassador at the Penn Health-Tech Center for Health Devices and Technology. At Oxford, Kariyawasam plans to pursue a D.Phil. degree.

Read more at Penn Today.

Penn Researchers Show ‘Encrypted’ Peptides Could be Wellspring of Natural Antibiotics

by Melissa Pappas

César de la Fuente, Ph.D.

While biologists and chemists race to develop new antibiotics to combat constantly mutating bacteria, predicted to lead to 10 million deaths by 2050, engineers are approaching the problem through a different lens: finding naturally occurring antibiotics in the human genome.

The billions of base pairs in the genome are essentially one long string of code that contains the instructions for making all of the molecules the body needs. The most basic of these molecules are amino acids, the building blocks for peptides, which in turn combine to form proteins. However, there is still much to learn about how — and where — a particular set of instructions are encoded.

Now, bringing a computer science approach to a life science problem, an interdisciplinary team of Penn researchers have used a carefully designed algorithm to discover a new suite of antimicrobial peptides, hiding deep within this code.

The study, published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, was led by César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, Microbiology, Psychiatry, and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, spanning both Penn Engineering and Penn Medicine, and his postdocs Marcelo Torres and Marcelo Melo. Collaborators Orlando Crescenzi and Eugenio Notomista of the University of Naples Federico II also contributed to this work.

“The human body is a treasure trove of information, a biological dataset. By using the right tools, we can mine for answers to some of the most challenging questions,” says de la Fuente. “We use the word ‘encrypted’ to describe the antimicrobial peptides we found because they are hidden within larger proteins that seem to have no connection to the immune system, the area where we expect to find this function.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

A New Model for How the Brain Perceives Unique Odors

by Erica K. Brockmeier

Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor Vijay Balasubramanian at Penn’s BioPond.

A study published in PLOS Computational Biology describes a new model for how the olfactory system discerns unique odors. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that a simplified, statistics-based model can explain how individual odors can be perceived as more or less similar from others depending on the context. This model provides a starting point for generating new hypotheses and conducting experiments that can help researchers better understand the olfactory system, a complex, crucial part of the brain.

The sense of smell, while crucial for things like taste and hazard avoidance, is not as well studied as other senses. Study co-author Vijay Balasubramanian, a theoretical physicist with an interest in how living systems process information, says that olfaction is a prime example of a complex information-processing system found in nature, as there are far more types of volatile molecules—on the scale of tens or hundreds of thousands—than there are receptor types in the nose to detect them, on the scale of tens to hundreds depending on the species.

“Every molecule can bind to many receptors, and every receptor can bind to many molecules, so you get this combinatorial mishmash, with the nose encoding smells in a way that involves many receptor types to collectively tell you what a smell is,” says Balasubramanian. “And because there are many fewer receptor types than molecular species, you basically have to compress a very high dimensional olfactory space into a much lower dimensional space of neural responses.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Vijay Balasubramanian is the Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

This research was supported by the Simons Foundation Mathematical Modeling of Living Systems (Grant 400425) and the Swartz Foundation.

Nerve Repair, With Help From Stem Cells

A cross-disciplinary Penn team is pioneering a new approach to peripheral nerve repair.

In a new publication in the journal npj Regenerative Medicine, a team of Penn researchers from the School of Dental Medicine and the Perelman School of Medicine “coaxed human gingiva-derived mesenchymal stem cells (GMSCs) to grow Schwann-like cells, the pro-regenerative cells of the peripheral nervous system that make myelin and neural growth factors,” addressing the need for regrowing functional nerves involving commercially-available scaffolds to guide nerve growth. The study was led by Anh Le, Chair and Norman Vine Endowed Professor of Oral Rehabilitation in the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery/Pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, and was co-authored by D. Kacy Cullen, Associate Professor in Neurosurgery at the Perelman School of Medicine at Penn and the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center and member of the Bioengineering Graduate Group:

D. Kacy Cullen (Image: Eric Sucar)

“To get host Schwann cells all throughout a bioscaffold, you’re basically approximating natural nerve repair,” Cullen says. Indeed, when Le and Cullen’s groups collaborated to implant these grafts into rodents with a facial nerve injury and then tested the results, they saw evidence of a functional repair. The animals had less facial droop than those that received an “empty” graft and nerve conduction was restored. The implanted stem cells also survived in the animals for months following the transplant.

“The animals that received nerve conduits laden with the infused cells had a performance that matched the group that received an autograft for their repair,” he says. “When you’re able to match the performance of the gold-standard procedure without a second surgery to acquire the autograft, that is definitely a technology to pursue further.”

Read the full story and view the full list of collaborators in Penn Today.

BE Seminar: “Phage and Robotics-Assisted Biomolecular Evolution” (Emma Chory)

Emma Chory, Ph.D.

Speaker: Emma Chory, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow
Sculpting Evolution Laboratory
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Date: Thursday, October 21, 2021
Time: 3:30-4:30 PM EDT
Zoom – check email for link or contact ksas@seas.upenn.edu
Room: Moore 216

Abstract: Evolution occurs when selective pressures from the environment shape inherited variation over time. Within the laboratory, evolution is commonly used to engineer proteins and RNA, but experimental constraints have limited our ability to reproducibly and reliably explore key factors such as population diversity, the timing of environmental changes, and chance. We developed a high-throughput system for the analytical exploration of molecular evolution using phage-based mutagenesis to evolve many distinct classes of biomolecules simultaneously. In this talk, I will describe the development of our open-source python:robot integration platform which enables us to adjust the stringency of selection in response to real-time evolving activity measurements and to dissect the historical, environmental, and random factors governing biomolecular evolution. Finally, I will talk about our many on-going projects which utilize this system to evolve previously intractable biomolecules using novel small-molecule substrates to target the undruggable proteome.

Emma Chory Bio: Emma Chory is a postdoctoral fellow in the Sculpting Evolution Group at MIT, advised by Kevin Esvelt and Jim Collins. Emma’s research utilizes directed evolution, robotics, and chemical biology to evolve biosynthetic pathways for the synthesis of novel peptide-based therapeutics. Emma obtained her PhD in Chemical Engineering in the laboratory of Gerald Crabtree at Stanford University. She is the recipient of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and a pre- and postdoctoral NIH NRSA Fellowship.

Using Big Data to Measure Emotional Well-being in the Wake of George Floyd’s Murder

by Melissa Pappas

George Floyd’s murder had an undeniable emotional impact on people around the world, as evidenced by this memorial mural in Berlin, but quantifying that impact is challenging. Researchers from Penn Engineering and Stanford have used a computational approach on U.S. survey data to break down this emotional toll along racial and geographic lines. Their results show a significantly larger amount of self-reported anger and sadness among Black Americans than their White counterparts. (Photo: Leonhard Lenz)

The murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed by a White police officer, affected the mental well-being of many Americans. The effects were multifaceted as it was an act of police brutality and example of systemic racism that occurred during the uncertainty of a global pandemic, creating an even more complex dynamic and emotional response.

Because poor mental health can lead to a myriad of additional ailments, including poor physical health, inability to hold a job and an overall decrease in quality of life, it is important to understand how certain events affect it. This is especially critical when the emotional burden of these events  falls most on demographics affected by systemic racism. However, unlike physical health, mental health is challenging to characterize and measure, and thus, population-level data on mental health has been limited.

To better understand patterns of mental health on a population scale, Penn Engineers Lyle H. Ungar, Professor of Computer and Information Science (CIS), and Sharath Chandra Guntuku, Research Assistant Professor in CIS, take a computational approach to this challenge. Drawing on large-scale surveys as well as language analysis in social media through their work with the World Well-Being Project, they have developed visualizations of these patterns across the U.S.

Their latest study involves tracking changes in emotional and mental health following George Floyd’s murder. Combining polling data from the U.S. Census and Gallup, Guntuku, Ungar and colleagues have shown that Floyd’s murder spiked a wave of unprecedented sadness and anger across the U.S. population, the largest since relevant data began being recorded in 2009.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

N.B. Lyle Ungar is also a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Atomically-thin, Twisted Graphene Has Unique Properties

by Erica K. Brockmeier

New collaborative research describes how electrons move through two different configurations of bilayer graphene, the atomically-thin form of carbon. These results provide insights that researchers could use to design more powerful and secure quantum computing platforms in the future.

New research published in Physical Review Letters describes how electrons move through two different configurations of bilayer graphene, the atomically-thin form of carbon. This study, the result of a collaboration between Brookhaven National Laboratory, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of New Hampshire, Stony Brook University, and Columbia University, provides insights that researchers could use to design more powerful and secure quantum computing platforms in the future.

“Today’s computer chips are based on our knowledge of how electrons move in semiconductors, specifically silicon,” says first and co-corresponding author Zhongwei Dai, a postdoc at Brookhaven. “But the physical properties of silicon are reaching a physical limit in terms of how small transistors can be made and how many can fit on a chip. If we can understand how electrons move at the small scale of a few nanometers in the reduced dimensions of 2-D materials, we may be able to unlock another way to utilize electrons for quantum information science.”

When a material is designed at these small scales, to the size of a few nanometers, it confines the electrons to a space with dimensions that are the same as its own wavelength, causing the material’s overall electronic and optical properties to change in a process called quantum confinement. In this study, the researchers used graphene to study these confinement effects in both electrons and photons, or particles of light.

The work relied upon two advances developed independently at Penn and Brookhaven. Researchers at Penn, including Zhaoli Gao, a former postdoc in the lab of Charlie Johnson who is now at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, used a unique gradient-alloy growth substrate to grow graphene with three different domain structures: single layer, Bernal stacked bilayer, and twisted bilayer. The graphene material was then transferred onto a special substrate developed at Brookhaven that allowed the researchers to probe both electronic and optical resonances of the system.

“This is a very nice piece of collaborative work,” says Johnson. “It brings together exceptional capabilities from Brookhaven and Penn that allow us to make important measurements and discoveries that none of us could do on our own.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Charlie Johnson is the Rebecca W. Bushnell Professor of Physics and Astronomy in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

BE Seminar: “Material Design for Lymph Node Drug Delivery and Immunomodulation” (Susan Thomas)

Susan Thomas, Ph.D.

Speaker: Susan N. Thomas, Ph.D.
Woodruff Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering
Parker H. Petit Institute of Bioengineering and Bioscience
Georgia Institute of Technology

Date: Thursday, September 23, 2021
Time: 3:30-4:30 PM EDT
Zoom – check email for link or contact ksas@seas.upenn.edu
This virtual seminar will be held over Zoom. Students registered for BE 699 can gather to watch live in Moore 216, 200 S. 33rd Street.

Abstract: Lymph nodes mediate the co-mingling of cells of the adaptive system to coordinate adaptive immune response. Drug delivery principles and technologies our group has developed to leverage the potential of lymph nodes as immunotherapeutic drug targets to augment anti-cancer therapeutic effects will be described.

Susan Thomas Bio: Susan Napier Thomas is a Woodruff Associate Professor with tenure of Mechanical Engineering in the Parker H. Petit Institute of Bioengineering and Bioscience at the Georgia Institute of Technology where she holds adjunct appointments in Biomedical Engineering and Biological Science and is a member of the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Prior to this appointment, she was a Whitaker postdoctoral scholar at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and received her B.S. in Chemical Engineering cum laude from the University of California Los Angeles and her Ph.D. as in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering as an NSF Graduate Research Fellow from The Johns Hopkins University. For her contributions to the emerging field of immunoengineering, she has been honored with the 2018 Young Investigator Award from the Society for Biomaterials for “outstanding achievements in the field of biomaterials research” and the 2013 Rita Schaffer Young Investigator Award from the Biomedical Engineering Society “in recognition of high level of originality and ingenuity in a scientific work in biomedical engineering.” Her interdisciplinary research program is supported by multiple awards from the National Cancer Institute, the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and the Susan G. Komen Foundation, amongst others.

Interact, Adapt, Repeat

Sophomores Linda Wu and Nova Meng spent the summer studying coevolution among plants, mutualistic bacteria, and parasitic nematodes in Corlett Wood’s biology lab.

by Katherine Unger Baillie

To study coevolution, the responsibilities of Nova Meng and Linda Wu included caring for plants in the Penn greenhouse. (Image: From July 2021, when masks were not required)

Coevolution is all around us. Think of the elongated blooms that perfectly accommodate a hummingbird’s slender mouth parts. But not all examples of species influencing one another’s evolutionary course accrue benefits to all parties. Tradeoffs are part of the game.

This summer, sophomores Linda Wu of Annandale, Virginia, and Nova Meng of Akron, Ohio, researched an coevolutionary scenario with benefits as well as costs for the species involved. Their work, supported by the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program (PURM) and conducted in the lab of biology professor Corlett Wood, has examined the relationship among plants in the genus Medicago, beneficial bacteria that dwell in their roots, and parasitic nematodes that try to steal the plants’ nutrients.

The Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships provides students in the PURM program awards of $4,500 during the 10-week summer research internship. Wu and Meng stayed busy through those weeks. Whether evaluating plants in a soybean field in Michigan or tending to hundreds—even thousands—of plants in the greenhouse at Penn, these aspiring researchers built a foundation for future scientific endeavors with hands-on practice.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” says Wu. “I’ve always been interested in genetics and evolution and have found parasitic relationships in particular really interesting. I like reading about weird parasites. This summer I’ve gotten to participate in lab meetings, read books about coevolution, and expand my knowledge about the topic.”

Mentored by Ph.D. student McCall Calvert, Wu spent the summer focused on the parasites in the Medicago model system the Wood lab uses. “I’m trying to see if those nematodes are specialists or generalists, if they’re locally adapted to their host plant or open to parasitizing on different species,” Wu says.

To do so, she’s grown pots and pots of plants in the Penn greenhouse, experimentally infecting Medicago plants as well as other species, such as carrot and daisy plants, with nematodes, to measure the degree to which the parasites flourish.

Meng, who is pursuing a bioengineering major, is examining how bacteria that dwell in plant roots affect the plants’ susceptibility to parasites.

Meng’s project looked at the bacterial side of the coevolutionary relationship. Overseen by lab manager and technician Eunnuri Yi, Meng looked at four strains of bacteria, known as rhizobia. Two strains are nitrogen-fixing, giving their associated plants a crucial nutrient to promote growth, while the other two do not seem to contribute nitrogen to the plants, and instead exist as parasites in the plants’ roots. “I’m looking at what happens when we infect the plants with nematode parasites,” Meng says, “to see if the plants that are open to mutualistic rhizobia are more susceptible to the nematode parasites.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Linda Wu is a sophomore pursuing an uncoordinated dual degree in business, energy, environment, and sustainability in the Wharton School and in biology with a concentration in ecology and evolution in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

Nova Meng is a sophomore majoring in bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Penn.