In the most recent episode of the Penn Engineering podcast Innovation & Impact, titled “RNA: Past, Present and Future,” David F. Meaney, Senior Associate Dean of Penn Engineering and Solomon R. Pollack Professor in Bioengineering, is joined by Mike Mitchell, Associate Professor in Bioengineering, and Noor Momin, who will be joining Penn Engineering as an Assistant Professor in Bioengineering early next year, to discuss the impact that RNA has had on health care and biomedical engineering technologies.
Mitchell outlines his lab’s research that spans drug delivery, new technology in protecting RNA and its applications in treating cancer. Momin details her research, which is focused on optimizing the immune system to protect against illnesses such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer. With Meaney driving the discussion around larger questions, including the possibility of a cancer vaccine, the three discuss what they are excited about now and where the field is going in the future with these emerging, targeted treatments.
The award recognizes faculty who are conducting some of the most innovative and impactful studies in the field of biomedical engineering. Recipients will present their research and be officially recognized at the BMES Annual Meeting in October.
Mitchell is being honored for creating an RNA nanoparticle therapy that stops the spread of the deadly bone marrow cancer multiple myeloma and helps to eliminate it altogether. Known for being difficult to treat, the disease kills over 100,000 people every year.
“We urgently need innovative, effective therapies against this cancer,” Mitchell says. “The nanotechnology we developed can potentially serve as a platform to treat multiple myeloma and other bone marrow-based malignancies.”
Mitchell, along with Christian Figuerora-Espada, a doctoral student in Bioengineering, previously published a study in PNAS describing how their RNA nanoparticle therapy stops multiple myeloma from moving through the blood vessels and mutating. In their current paper in Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering, which expands upon this RNA nanoparticle platform, they show that inhibition of both multiple myeloma migration and adhesion to bone marrow blood vessels, combined with an FDA-approved multiple myeloma therapeutic, extends survival in a mouse model of multiple myeloma.
Multiple myeloma is an incurable bone marrow cancer that kills over 100,000 people every year. Known for its quick and deadly spread, this disease is one of the most challenging to address. As these cancer cells move through different parts of the body, they mutate, outpacing possible treatments. People diagnosed with severe multiple myeloma that is resistant to chemotherapy typically survive for only three to six months. Innovative therapies are desperately needed to prevent the spread of this disease and provide a fighting chance for those who suffer from it.
New research on reproductive health demonstrates the first successful delivery of mRNA to placental cells to treat pre-eclampsia at its root.
Pre-eclampsia is a leading cause of stillbirths and prematurity worldwide, occurring in 3 – 8 % of pregnancies. A disorder characterized by high maternal blood pressure, it results from insufficient vasodilation in the placenta, restricting blood flow from the mother to the fetus.
Currently, a health-care plan for someone with pre-eclampsia involves diet and movement changes, frequent monitoring, blood pressure management, and sometimes early delivery of the baby. These standards of care address symptoms of the condition, not the root cause, and further perpetuate health inequity.
Now, Penn engineers are addressing this longstanding gap in reproductive health care with targeted RNA therapy.
The COVID vaccines demonstrated how lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) efficiently deliver mRNA to target cells. The success of LNPs is opening doors for a variety of RNA therapies aiming to treat the root causes of illness and disease. However, drug development and health care have consistently neglected a portion of the population in need of targeted care the most – pregnant people and their babies.
In one of the first studies of its kind, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society,Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering, and Kelsey Swingle, Ph.D. student in the Mitchell Lab and lead author, describe their development of an LNP with the ability to target and deliver mRNA to trophoblasts, endothelial cells, and immune cells in the placenta.
Once these cells receive the mRNA, they create vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), a protein that helps expand the blood vessels in the placenta to reduce the mother’s blood pressure and restore adequate circulation to the fetus. The researchers’ successful trials in mice may lead to promising treatments for pre-eclampsia in humans.
Since the success of the COVID-19 vaccine, RNA therapies have been the object of increasing interest in the biotech world. These therapies work with your body to target the genetic root of diseases and infections, a promising alternative treatment method to that of traditional pharmaceutical drugs.
Lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) have been successfully used in drug delivery for decades. FDA-approved therapies use them as vehicles for delivering messenger RNA (mRNA), which prompts the cell to make new proteins, and small interfering RNA (siRNA), which instruct the cell to silence or inhibit the expression of certain proteins.
The biggest challenge in developing a successful RNA therapy is its targeted delivery. Research is now confronting the current limitations of LNPs, which have left many diseases without an effective RNA therapy.
Liver fibrosis occurs when the liver is repeatedly damaged and the healing process results in the accumulation of scar tissue, impeding healthy liver function. It is a chronic disease characterized by the buildup of excessive collagen-rich extracellular matrix (ECM). Liver fibrosis has remained challenging to treat using RNA therapies due to a lack of delivery systems for targeting activated liver-resident fibroblasts. Both the solid fibroblast structure and the lack of specificity or affinity to target these fibroblasts has impeded current LNPs from entering activated liver-resident fibroblasts, and thus they are unable to deliver RNA therapeutics.
To tackle this issue and help provide a treatment for the millions of people who suffer from this chronic disease, Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering, and postdoctoral fellows Xuexiang Han and Ningqiang Gong, found a new way to synthesize ligand-tethered LNPs, increasing their selectivity and allowing them to target liver fibroblasts.
Lulu Xue, Margaret Billingsley, Rakan El-Mayta, Sarah J. Shepherd, Mohamad-Gabriel Alameh and Drew Weissman, Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research and Director of the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation at the Perelman School of Medicine, also contributed to this work.
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.
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.
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.
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.