Penn Engineers Secure Wellcome Leap Contract for Lipid Nanoparticle Research Essential in Delivery of RNA Therapies

by Melissa Pappas

The Very Large Scale Microfluidic Integration (VLSMI) platform, a technology developed by the Penn researchers, contains hundreds of mixing channels for mass-producing mRNA-carrying lipid nanoparticles.

Penn Engineering secured a multi-million-dollar contract with Wellcome Leap under the organization’s $60 million RNA Readiness + Response (R3) program, which is jointly funded with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). Penn Engineers aim to create “on-demand” manufacturing technology that can produce a range of RNA-based vaccines.

The Penn Engineering team features Daeyeon Lee, Evan C Thompson Term Chair for Excellence in Teaching and Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Michael Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, David Issadore, Associate Professor in Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, and Sagar Yadavali, a former postdoctoral researcher in the Issadore and Lee labs and now the CEO of InfiniFluidics, a spinoff company based on their research. Drew Weissman of the Perelman School of Medicine, whose foundational research directly continued to the development of mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines, is also a part of this interdisciplinary team.

The success of these COVID-19 vaccines has inspired a fresh perspective and wave of research funding for RNA therapeutics across a wide range of difficult diseases and health issues. These therapeutics now need to be equitably and efficiently distributed, something currently limited by the inefficient mRNA vaccine manufacturing processes which would rapidly translate technologies from the lab to the clinic.

Read more in Penn Engineering Today.

‘RNA worked for COVID-19 vaccines. Could it be used to treat cancer and rare childhood diseases?’

William H. Peranteau, Michael J. Mitchell, Margaret Billingsley, Meghana Kashyap, and Rachel Riley (Clockwise from top left)

As COVID-19 vaccines roll out, the concept of using mRNA to fend off viruses has become a part of the public dialogue. However, scientists have been researching how mRNA can be used to in life-saving medical treatments well before the pandemic.

The “m” in “mRNA” is for “messenger.” A single-stranded counterpart to DNA, it translates the genetic code into the production of proteins, the building blocks of life. The Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines work by introducing mRNA sequences that act as a set of instructions for the body to produce proteins that mimic parts of the virus itself. This prepares the body’s immune response to recognize the real virus and fight it off.

Because it can spur the production of proteins that the body can’t make on its own, mRNA therapies also have the potential to slow or prevent genetic diseases that develop before birth, such as cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia.

However, because mRNA is a relatively unstable molecule that degrades quickly, it needs to be packaged in a way that maintains its integrity as its delivered to the cells of a developing fetus.

To solve this challenge, Michael J. Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering, is researching the use of lipid nanoparticles as packages that transport mRNA into the cell. He and William H. Peranteau, an attending surgeon in the Division of General, Thoracic and Fetal Surgery and the Adzick-McCausland Distinguished Chair in Fetal and Pediatric Surgery at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, recently co-authored a “proof-of-concept” paper investigating this technique.

In this study, published in Science Advances, Mitchel examined which nanoparticles were optimal in the transport of mRNA to fetal mice. Although no disease or organ was targeted in this study, the ability to administer mRNA to a mouse while still in the womb was demonstrated, and the results are promising for the next stages of targeted disease prevention in humans.

Mitchel spoke with Tom Avril at The Philadelphia Inquirer about the mouse study and its implications for treatment of rare infant diseases through the use of mRNA, ‘the messenger of life.’

Penn bioengineering professor Michael J. Mitchell, the other senior author of the mouse study, tested various combinations of lipids to see which would work best.

The appeal of the fatty substances is that they are biocompatible. In the vaccines, for example, two of the four lipids used to make the delivery spheres are identical to lipids found in the membranes of human cells — including plain old cholesterol.

When injected, the spheres, called nanoparticles, are engulfed by the person’s cells and then deposit their cargo, the RNA molecules, inside. The cells respond by making the proteins, just as they make proteins by following the instructions in the person’s own RNA. (Important reminder: The RNA in the vaccines cannot become part of your DNA.)

Among the different lipid combinations that Mitchell and his lab members tested, some were better at delivering their cargo to specific organs, such as the liver and lungs, meaning they could be a good vehicle for treating disease in those tissues.

Continue reading Tom Avril’s ‘RNA worked for COVID-19 vaccines. Could it be used to treat cancer and rare childhood diseases?’ at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Penn Engineers Devise Easier Way of Sneaking Antibodies into Cells

Getting a complex protein like an antibody through the membrane of a cell without damaging either is a long-standing challenge in the life sciences. Penn Engineers have found a plug-and-play solution that makes antibodies compatible with the delivery vehicles commonly used to ferry nucleic acids across that barrier.

For almost any conceivable protein, corresponding antibodies can be developed to block it from binding or changing shape, which ultimately prevents it from carrying out its normal function. As such, scientists have looked to antibodies as a way of shutting down proteins inside cells for decades, but there is still no consistent way to get them past the cell membrane in meaningful numbers.

Now, Penn Engineering researchers have figured out a way for antibodies to hitch a ride with transfection agents, positively charged bubbles of fat that biologists routinely use to transport DNA and RNA into cells. These delivery vehicles only accept cargo with a highly negative charge, a quality that nucleic acids have but antibodies lack. By designing a negatively charged amino acid chain that can be attached to any antibody without disrupting its function, they have made antibodies broadly compatible with common transfection agents.

Beyond the technique’s usefulness towards studying intracellular dynamics, the researchers conducted functional experiments with antibodies that highlight the technique’s potential for therapeutic applications. One antibody blocked a protein that decreases the efficacy of certain drugs by prematurely ejecting them from cells. Another blocked a protein involved in the transcription process, which could be an even more fundamental way of knocking out proteins with unwanted effects.

Andrew Tsourkas and Hejia Henry Wang

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted by Andrew Tsourkas, professor in the Department of Bioengineering, and Hejia Henry Wang, a graduate student in his lab.

Read the full story at the Penn Engineering Medium Blog. Media contact Evan Lerner.