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.

Grace Hopper Distinguished Lecture: “Biomanufacturing Vascularized Organoids and Functional Human Tissues” (Jennifer A. Lewis)

We hope you will join us for the 2021 Grace Hopper Distinguished Lecture by Dr. Jennifer Lewis, presented by the Department of Bioengineering. For event links, email ksas@seas.upenn.edu.

Date: Thursday, March 25, 2021
Time: 3:00-4:00 PM EDT

Jennifer A. Lewis

Speaker: Jennifer A. Lewis, Sc.D.
Wyss Professor for Biologically Inspired Engineering
The Wyss Institue
Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Harvard University

Title: “Biomanufacturing Vascularized Organoids and Functional Human Tissue”

Following the lecture, join us for a panel discussion “Horizon 2030: Engineering Life & Life in (Bio)Engineering” featuring Dr. Lewis and Penn faculty and moderated by Bioengineering students. Further details here.

Lecture Abstract:
Recent protocols in developmental biology are unlocking the potential for stem cells to undergo differentiation and self-assembly to form “mini-organs”, known as organoids. To bridge the gap from organoid building blocks (OBBs) to therapeutic functional tissues, integrative approaches that combine bottom-up organoid assembly with top-down bioprinting are needed. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how either organoids or bioprinting alone would fully replicate the complex multiscale features required for organ-specific function – their combination may provide an enabling foundation for de novo tissue manufacturing. My talk will begin by describing our recent efforts to generate organoids in vitro with perfusable microvascular networks that support their viability and maturation. Next, I will describe the generation of 3D vascularized organ-specific tissues by assembling OBBs into a living matrix that supports the embedded printing of macro-vessels by a process known as sacrificial writing in functional tissue (SWIFT).  Though broadly applicable, I will highlight our recent work on kidney, cerebral, and cardiac tissue engineering.

Dr. Lewis Bio:

Jennifer A. Lewis is the Jianming Yu Professor of Arts and Sciences, the Wyss Professor for Biologically Inspired Engineering in the Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a core faculty member of the Wyss Institute at Harvard University. Her research focuses on 3D printing of functional, structural, and biological materials that emulate natural systems. Prior to joining Harvard, Lewis was a faculty member in the Materials Science and Engineering Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she served as the Director of the Materials Research Laboratory. Currently, she directs the Harvard Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) and serves the NSF Mathematical and Physical Sciences Advisory Committee.

Lewis has received numerous awards, including the Presidential Faculty Fellow Award, the American Chemical Society Langmuir Lecture Award, the Materials Research Society Medal Award, the American Ceramic Society Sosman and Roy Lecture Awards, and the Lush Science Prize. She is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Inventors, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her research has enjoyed broad coverage in the popular media. To date, she has co-founded two companies, Voxel8 Inc. and Electroninks, that are commercializing technology from her lab.

Information on the Grace Hopper Lecture:
In support of its educational mission of promoting the role of all engineers in society, the School of Engineering and Applied Science presents the Grace Hopper Lecture Series. This series is intended to serve the dual purpose of recognizing successful women in engineering and of inspiring students to achieve at the highest level.
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was a mathematician, computer scientist, systems designer and the inventor of the compiler. Her outstanding contributions to computer science benefited academia, industry and the military. In 1928 she graduated from Vassar College with a B.A. in mathematics and physics and joined the Vassar faculty. While an instructor, she continued her studies in mathematics at Yale University where she earned an M.A. in 1930 and a Ph.D. in 1934. Grace Hopper is known worldwide for her work with the first large-scale digital computer, the Navy’s Mark I. In 1949 she joined Philadelphia’s Eckert-Mauchly, founded by the builders of ENIAC, which was building UNIVAC I. Her work on compilers and on making machines understand ordinary language instructions lead ultimately to the development of the business language, COBOL. Grace Hopper served on the faculty of the Moore School for 15 years, and in 1974 received an honorary degree from the University. In support of the accomplishments of women in engineering, each department within the School invites a prominent speaker for a one or two-day visit that incorporates a public lecture, various mini-talks and opportunities to interact with undergraduate and graduate students and faculty.

BE Seminar: “Stem Cell Fate is a Touchy Subject” (Quinton Smith, MIT)

The first lecture in the Fall 2020 Penn Bioengineering Seminar Series will be held Thursday, September 10th. All seminars this semester will be held virtually on Zoom.

Quinton Smith, PhD

Speaker: Quinton Smith, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow
Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Date: Thursday, September 10, 2020
Time: 3:00-4:00 pm
Zoom – check email for link or contact ksas@seas.upenn.edu

Title: “Stem Cell Fate is a Touchy Subject”

Abstract:

The success of regenerative cell therapy relies on the integration of a functional vascular system within the redeveloping tissue, to mediate the exchange of oxygen, nutrients and waste. Although the advent of human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) has accelerated progress towards this goal, owing to their potential to generate clinically relevant scales of patient-specific cells, techniques to drive their specification mainly rely on chemical cues. In this seminar, I will discuss engineering strategies to control the complex stem cell extracellular milieu, emphasizing the importance of mechanical cues during hiPSC development, specification and downstream functionality as it relates to vascular differentiation.

Bio:

Quinton Smith received his PhD in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering from Johns Hopkins University in 2017 after completing his bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of New Mexico. As a graduate student under the guidance of Dr. Sharon Gerecht, Quinton implemented various engineering tools to explore the roles of physical and chemical cues on stem cell lineage specification and downstream maturation. Dr. Smith is currently a postdoctoral fellow under the mentorship of Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, where he is investigating the role biliary epithelium in liver regeneration. Dr. Smith’s predoctoral work was supported by an NIH/NHLBI F-31 and NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. He is a recipient of the 2017 Siebel Scholar award, and most recently joined the class of 2018 HHMI Hanna Gray Fellows.

See the full list of upcoming Penn Bioengineering fall seminars here.

BE Seminar Series: March 5th with Tara L. Deans, Ph.D.

Our next Penn Bioengineering seminar will be held this Thursday. We hope to see you there!

Speaker: Tara L. Deans, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Biomedical Engineering
University of Utah

Date: Thursday, March 5, 2020
Time: 12:00-1:00 pm
Location: Room 337, Towne Building

Title: “Engineering Stem Cells to Create Novel Delivery Vehicles”

 

Abstract:

Synthetic biology has transformed how cells can be reprogrammed, providing a means to reliably and predictably control cell behavior with the assembly of genetic parts into more complex gene circuits. Using approaches and tools in synthetic biology, we are programming stem cells with novel genetic tools to control genes and pathways that result in changes in stem cell fate decisions, in addition to reprogramming terminally differentiated cells to function as unique therapeutic diagnostic and delivery vehicles.

Bio:

Dr. Tara Deans received her PhD from Boston University in Biomedical Engineering. Following her postdoctoral training at Johns Hopkins University, she became an Assistant Professor in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Utah. Currently, Dr. Deans runs an applied mammalian synthetic biology laboratory where her lab focuses on building novel genetic tools to study the mechanisms of stem cell differentiation for the purpose of directing cell fate decisions. Recently, Dr. Deans received four prestigious awards to support this area of research: the NSF CAREER Award, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Young Investigator Award, the NIH Trailblazer Award and an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. In addition to her research, Dr. Deans was recently named a STEM Ambassador in the STEM Ambassador Program (STEMAP) at the University of Utah to engage underrepresented groups in STEM fields.

Replicating fetal bone growth process could help heal large bone defects

Joel Boerckel, Ph.D, Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering

To treat large gaps in long bones, like the femur, which result from bone tumor removal or a shattering trauma, researchers at Penn Medicine and the University of Illinois at Chicago developed a process that partially recreates the bone growth process that occurs before birth. A bone defect of more than two centimeters is considered substantial, and current successful healing rates stand at 50% or less, with failure often resulting in amputation. The team hopes that their method, which they’ve developed in rodent models to mimic the process of rapid fetal bone growth, can substantially improve success rates. Their findings are published in Science Translational Medicine. 

Watercolor- A watercolor image depicting the embryonic bone development process, endochondral ossification, featuring cartilage and bone. Credit: Joel Boerckel

“When bones are originally formed in the embryo, they’re first generated from cartilage, like a template,” says senior author Joel Boerckel, an assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery and bioengineering. “In order to regenerate bone within defects that otherwise won’t heal in grown people, we are seeking to recreate the embryonic bone development process.”

To do that, the researchers’ process begins with the delivery of specially engineered stem cells (called a condensation of mesenchymal cells) to the rodents’ bone defect, which sparks endochondral ossification, the specific term for embryonic bone development.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.

Week in BioE (May 31, 2019)

by Sophie Burkholder

Vector Flow Imaging Helps Visualize Blood Flow in Pediatric Hearts

A group of biomedical engineers at the University of Arkansas used a new ultrasound-based imaging technique called vector flow imaging to help improve the diagnosis of congenital heart disease in pediatric patients. The study, led by associate professor of biomedical engineering Morten Jensen, Ph.D., collaborated with cardiologists at the local Children’s Hospital in Little Rock to produce images of the heart in infants to help potentially diagnose congenital heart defects. Though the use of vector flow imaging has yet to be developed for adult patients, this type of imaging could possibly provide more detail about the direction of blood flow through the heart than traditional techniques like echocardiography do. In the future, the use of both techniques could provide information about both the causes and larger effects of heart defects in patients.

Using Stem Cells to Improve Fertility in Leukemia Survivors

One of the more common side effects of leukemia treatment in female patients is infertility, but researchers at the University of Michigan want to change that. Led by associate professor of biomedical engineering Ariella Shikanov, Ph.D., researchers in her lab found ways of increasing ovarian follicle productivity in mice, which directly relates to the development of mature eggs. The project involves the use of adipose-derived stem cells, that can be found in human fat tissue, to surround the follicles in an ovary-like, three-dimensional scaffold.  Because the radiation treatments for leukemia and some other cancers are harmful to follicles, increasing their survival rate with this stem cell method could reduce the rate of infertility in patients undergoing these treatments. Furthermore, this new approach is innovative in its use of a three-dimensional scaffold as opposed to a two-dimensional one, as it stimulates follicle growth in all directions and thus helps to increase the follicle survival rate.

Penn Engineers Look at How Stretching & Alignment of Collagen Fibers Help Cancer Cells Spread

Cancer has such a massive impact on people’s lives that it might be easy to forget that the disease originates at the cellular level. To spread and cause significant damage, individual cancer cells must navigate the fibrous extracellular environment that cells live in, an environment that Penn Engineer Vivek Shenoy has been investigating for years.

Shenoy is the Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor with appointments in Materials Science and Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, and Bioengineering. He is also the Director of the Center for Engineering MechanoBiology (CEMB), one of the NSF’s twelve Science and Technology Centers.

Shenoy’s most recent study on cancer’s mechanical environment was led by a postdoctoral researcher in his lab, Ehsan Ban. Paul Janmey, professor in Physiology and Bioengineering, and colleagues at Stanford University also contributed to the study. Shenoy also received the Heilmeier Award this March and delivered the Heilmeier Award Lecture in April.

Read the rest of this story on Penn Engineering’s Medium Blog.

Controlled Electrical Stimulation Can Prevent Joint Replacement Infections

Joint replacements are one of the most common kinds of surgery today, but they still require intense post-operative therapy and have a risk of infection from the replacement implant. These infections are usually due to the inflammatory response that the body has to any foreign object, and can become serious and life-threatening if left untreated. Researchers at the University of Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences hope to offer a solution to preventing infections through the use of controlled electrical stimulation. Led by Mark Ehrensberger, Ph.D., Kenneth A. Krackow, M.D., and Anthony A. Campagnari, Ph.D., the treatment system uses the electrical signal to create an antibacterial environment at the interface of the body and the implant. While the signal does not prevent infections completely, these antibacterial properties will prevent infections from worsening to a more serious level. Patented as the Biofilm Disruption Device TM, the final product uses two electrode skin patches and a minimally invasive probe that delivers the electrical signal directly to the joint-body interface. The researchers behind the design hope that it can help create a more standard way of effectively treating joint replacement infections.

People and Places

TBx: Gabriel Koo, Ethan Zhao, Daphne Cheung, and Shelly Teng

For their senior design project, four bioengineering seniors Gabriel Koo, Ethan Zhao, Daphne Cheung, and Shelly Teng created a low-cost tuberculosis diagnostic that they called TBx. Using their knowledge of the photoacoustic effect of certain dyes, the platform the group created can detect the presence of lipoarabinomannan in patient urine. The four seniors presented TBx at the Rice360 Design Competition in Houston, Texas this spring, which annually features student-designed low-cost global health technologies.

Week in BioE: April 19, 2019

by Sophie Burkholder

New Vascularized Patches Could Help Patient Recovery from Heart Attacks

Heart attacks are the result of a stoppage of blood flow to the heart – an interruption to normal function that can result in severe tissue damage, or even tissue death. This loss of healthy tissue function is one of the biggest challenges in treating patients that undergo heart attacks, as the damaged tissue increases their risk of having future attacks. One of the main solutions to this issue right now is the creation of cardiac tissue scaffolds using stem cells to create a platform for new and healthy tissue to grow in vivo. A group of biomedical engineers at Michigan Technological University hopes to expand on this basis by focusing not just on cellular alignment in the scaffold but on that of microvessels too. Led by Feng Zhao, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, the team hopes that this new attention on microvessel organization will improve the vasculature of the scaffolds, and thus improve the success of the scaffolds in vivo, allowing for a better recovery from heart attacks.

Some Stem Cells May Be More Fit Than Others

Stem cells are one of the hottest research areas in the field of bioengineering today. Widely known as the cells in the human embryo that have the ability to eventually transform into specific cells for the brain, lung, and every other organ, stem cells are also of recent interest because researchers found ways to reverse this process, transforming organ-specific cells back to the pluripotent stem cell level. This achievement however, is mostly applicable to individual stem cells, and doesn’t fully encapsulate the way this process might work on a larger population level. So Peter Zandstra, Ph. D., a bioengineering faculty member at the University of British Columbia, decided to research just that.

Using mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs), Zandstra and his lab attempted to track the cells throughout their reprogramming, to more clearly trace each back to its respective parent population. Surprisingly, they found that after only one week of reprogramming, nearly 80% of the original cell population had been removed, meaning that most of the parent generation was not “fit” enough to undergo the process of reprogramming, indicating that perhaps some stem cells will have a better chance of survival in this process than others. This research may suggest that not all cells have the capacity to undergo reprogramming, as many researchers originally thought.

A New Microdevice Will Help Model Bronchial Spasms

The difficulty in breathing associated with asthma is the result of bronchial spasms, which are a kind of muscle contraction in the airways. But little was known about just how these spasms occurred in patients, so Andre Levchenko, Ph.D., Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins, and his lab created a microdevice to model them. Calling the device a “bronchi on a chip,” Levchenko and his team used a microphysiological model to look at some of the biochemical and mechanical signals associated with these kinds of muscle contractions. They found that the contractions operate in a positive feedback system, so that those caused by disturbance from allergens will subsequently cause even more contractions to occur. But surprisingly, they also found that a second contraction, if triggered at the right time during the initial contraction, could actually stop the process and allow the muscles to relax. Because asthma is a notoriously difficult disease to translate from animal to human models, this new device opens the door to understanding different mechanisms of asthma before taking research to clinical trials.

New CHOP Research Center to Focus Research on Pediatric Airway Disorders

A new bioengineering lab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia called the Center for Pediatric Airway Disorders will specialize in a variety of airway procedures for pediatric patients such as tracheal reconstruction and recurrent laryngeal nerve reinnervation. This new lab will be one of the first to give a unique focus to the application of bioengineering to pediatric laryngology. The interdisciplinary center brings together students and researchers from all different fields, including materials science and microbiology, to find new ways of repairing tissue and regenerating organs related to respiratory disorders. Specific areas of research will involve the modeling of children’s vocal cords, understanding the mechanisms of fibrosis, and improving surgical procedures.

Deeper Understanding of Sickle Cell Anemia Could Lead to New Treatments

Though sickle cell anemia is a common and well-known disease, a new study of its causes at the nanoscale level might reveal previously unknown information about the assembly of hemoglobin fibers. Using microscopes with the ability to visualize these molecules at such a small level, researchers at the University of Minnesota found that the beginning organizations that lead to sickle cell anemia are much less ordered than originally thought. Led by Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering David Wood, Ph.D., the team of researchers used this higher level of microscopy to find that hemoglobin self-assembly process, which was originally thought to be 96% efficient, is actually only 4% efficient. Wood hopes that this new knowledge will help allow for the development of new and better treatments for patients with sickle cell anemia, as there are currently only two FDA-approved ones on the market.

People & Places

Penn Today asked five Penn researchers about the women in STEM who have been a source of inspiration and encouragement throughout their own careers. Their responses include active researchers who have paved the way for better inclusion in STEM and famous female scientists from the past who broke boundaries as they made strides with their research.

Dr. Danielle Bassett, the Eduardo D. Glandt Faculty Fellow and associate professor of bioengineering and electrical and systems engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, has two heroes: “Ingrid Daubechies for her work on wavelets, or “little waves,” which are beautiful mathematical objects that can be used to extract hidden structure in complex data. “Also, Maryam Mirzakhani for inspiring a child to believe that mathematics is simply painting. Would that we all could see the world just that bit differently.”

Read the full story on Penn Today.

Joel Boerckel, Ph.D, Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering

This week, we want to congratulate Joel Boerckel, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering, and his lab on receiving a second R01 Grant from the National Institute of Arthritis and and Musculoskeletal Skin Diseases for their work on defining the roles of YAP and TAZ in embryonic bone morphogenesis and mechanoregulation of fracture repair. Dr. Boerckel is a member of the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory.

We would also like to congratulate Christopher Yip, Ph. D., on being appointed as the new dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering. A professor in both the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, Dr. Yip’s research involves the use of molecular imaging to understand the self-assembly of proteins.

Penn Bioengineers: Cells Control Their Own Fate by Manipulating Their Environment

by Lauren Salig

In these images, the researchers labeled new proteins white, and antibodies against other proteins in different colors. The co-localization of new proteins and antibodies show how cells can impact their local environments.

As different as muscle, blood, brain and skin cells are from one another, they all share the same DNA. Stem cells’ transformation into these specialized cells — a process called cell fate determination — is controlled through various signals from their surroundings.

A recent Penn Engineering study suggests that cells may have more control over their fate than previously thought.

Jason Burdick, Robert D. Bent Professor of Bioengineering, and Claudia Loebel, a postdoctoral researcher in his lab, led the study. Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor for Education and Research in Orthopaedic Surgery at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, also contributed to the research.

Their study was published in Nature Materials.

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

Week in BioE (March 22, 2019)

by Sophie Burkholder

A New Microscopy Technique Could Reduce the Risk of LASIK Surgery

Though over ten million Americans have undergone LASIK vision corrective surgery since the option became available about 20 years ago, the procedure still poses some risk to patients. In addition to the usual risks of any surgery however, LASIK has even more due to the lack of a precise way to measure the refractive properties of the eye, which forces surgeons to make approximations in their measurements during the procedure. In an effort to eliminate this risk, a University of Maryland team of researchers in the Optics Biotech Laboratory led by Giuliano Scarcelli, Ph. D., designed a microscopy technique that would allow for precise measurements of these properties.

Using a form of light-scattering technology called Brillouin spectroscopy, Scarcelli and his lab found a way to directly determine a patient’s refractive index – the quantity surgeons need to know to be able to measure and adjust the way light travels through the eye. Often used as a way to sense mechanical properties of tissues and cells, this technology holds promise for taking three-dimensional spatial observations of these structures around the eye. Scarcelli hopes to keep improving the resolution of the new technique, to further understanding of the eye, and reduce even more of the risks involved with LASIK surgery.

Taking Tissue Models to the Final Frontier

Space flight is likely to cause deleterious changes to the composition of bacterial flora, leading to an increased risk of infection. The environment may also affect the susceptibility of microorganisms within the spacecraft to antibiotics, key components of flown medical kits, and may modify the virulence of bacteria and other microorganisms that contaminate the fabric of the International Space Station and other flight platforms.

“It has been known since the early days of human space flight that astronauts are more prone to infection,” says Dongeun (Dan) Huh, Wilf Family Term Assistant Professor in Bioengineering at Penn Engineering. “Infections can potentially be a serious threat to astronauts, but we don’t have a good fundamental understanding of how the microgravity environment changes the way our immune system reacts to pathogens.”

In collaboration with G. Scott Worthen, a physician-scientist in neonatology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Huh will attempt to answer this question by sending tissues-on-chips to space. Last June, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced that the duo had received funding to study lung host defense in microgravity at the International Space Station.

Huh and Worthen aim to model respiratory infection, which accounts for more than 30 percent of all infections reported in astronauts. The project’s goals are to test engineered systems that model the airway and bone marrow, a critical organ in the immune system responsible for generating white blood cells, and to combine the models to emulate and understand the integrated immune responses of the human respiratory system in microgravity.

Read the rest of the article on Penn Engineering’s Medium Blog. Media contacts Evan Lerner and Janelle Weaver.

Sappi Limited Teams Up with the University of Maine to Develop Paper Microfluidics

At the Westbrook Technology Center of Sappi, a global pulp and paper company, researchers found ways to apply innovations in paper texture for medical use. So far, these include endeavors in medical test devices and patches for patient diagnostics. In collaboration with the Caitlin Howell, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Maine, Sappi hopes to continue advances in these unconventional uses of their paper, especially as the business in paper for publishing purposes declines.

Sappi’s projects with the university focus on the development of paper microfluidics devices as what’s now becoming a widespread solution for obstacles in point-of-care diagnostics. One project in particular, called Sharklet, uses a paper that mimics shark skin as a way to impede unwanted microbial growth on the device – a key characteristic needed for its transition into commercial use. Beyond this example, Sappi’s work in developing paper microfluidics underscores the benefits of these devices in their mass producibility and adaptability.

New Observations of the WNT Pathway Deepen the Understanding of Protein Signaling in Cellular Development

Scientists at Rice University recently found that a protein signaling pathway called WNT, typically associated with its role in early organism development, can both listen for signals from a large amount of triggers and influence cell types throughout embryonic development. These new findings, published in PNAS, add to the already known functions of WNT, deepening our understanding of it and opening the doors to new potential applications of it in stem cell research.

Led by Aryeh Warmflash, Ph. D., researchers discovered that the WNT pathway is different between stem cells and differentiated cells, contrary to prior belief that it was the same for both. Using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology, the Warmflash lab observed that the WNT signaling pathway is actually context-dependent throughout the process of cellular development. This research brings a whole new understanding to the way the WNT pathway operates, and could open the doors to new forms of gene therapy and treatments for diseases like cancers that involve genetic pathway mutations.

People and Places

In a recent article from Technical.ly Philly, named Group K Diagnostics on a list of ten promising startups in Philadelphia. Group K Diagnostics founder Brianna Wronko graduated with a B.S.E. from Penn’s Department of Bioengineering in 2017, and her point-of-care diagnostics company raised over $2 million in funding last year. Congratulations Brianna!

We would also like to congratulate Pamela K. Woodward, M.D., on her being named as the inaugural Hugh Monroe Wilson Professor of Radiology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Also a Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the university, Dr. Woodward leads a research lab with a focus on cardiovascular imaging, including work on new standards for diagnosis of pulmonary blood clots and on an atherosclerosis imaging agent.

Lastly, we would like to congratulate all of the following researchers on their election to the National Academy of Engineering:

  • David Bishop, Ph. D., a professor at the College of Engineering at Boston University whose current research involves the development of personalized heart tissue as an all-encompassing treatment for patients with heart disease.
  • Joanna Aizenberg, Ph. D., a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University who leads research in the synthesis of biomimetic inorganic materials
  • Gilda Barabino, Ph. D., the dean of the City College of New York’s Grove School for Engineering whose lab focuses on cartilage tissue engineering and treatments for sickle cell disease.
  • Karl Deisseroth, M.D., Ph. D., a professor of bioengineering at Stanford University whose research involves the re-engineering of brain circuits through novel electromagnetic brain stimulation techniques.
  • Rosalind Picard, Ph.D., the founder and director of the Affective Computing Research Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab whose research focuses on the development of technology that can measure and understand human emotion.
  • And finally, Molly Stevens, Ph. D., the Research Director for Biomedical Material Sciences at the Imperial College of London with research in understanding biomaterial interfaces for biosensing and regenerative medicine.

Week in BioE (March 15, 2019)

by Sophie Burkholder

Synthetic Spinal Discs from a Penn Research Team Might Be the Solution to Chronic Back Pain

Spinal discs, the concentric circles of collagen fiber found between each vertebra of the spine, can be the source of immense back pain when ruptured. Especially for truck and bus drivers, veterans, and cigarette smokers, there is an increased risk in spinal disc rupture due to overuse or deterioration over time. But these patients aren’t alone. In fact, spinal discs erode over time for almost everyone, and are one of the sources of back pain in older patients, especially when the discs erode so much that they allow direct bone-to-bone contact between two or more vertebrae.

Robert Mauck, Ph.D.

Robert Mauck, Ph.D., who is the director of the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory here at Penn and a member of the Bioengineering Graduate Group Faculty, led a research team in creating artificial spinal discs, with an outer layer made from biodegradable polymer and an inner layer made with a sugar-like gel. Their findings appear in Science Translational Medicine. These synthetic discs are also seeded with stem cells that produce collagen over time, meant to replace the polymer as it degrades in vivo over time. Though Mauck and his time are still far from human clinical trials for the discs, they’ve shown some success in goat models so far. If successful, these biodegradable discs could lead to a solution for back pain that integrates itself into the human body over time, potentially eliminating the need of multiple invasive procedures that current solutions require. Mauck’s work was recently featured in Philly.com.

An Untethered, Light-Activated Electrode for Innovations in Neurostimulation

Neurostimulation, a process by which nervous system activity can be purposefully modulated, is a common treatment for patients with some form of paralysis or neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease. This procedure is typically invasive, and because of the brain’s extreme sensitivity, even the slightest involuntary movement of the cables, electrodes, and other components involved can lead to further brain damage through inflammation and scarring. In an effort to solve this common problem, researchers from the B.I.O.N.I.C. Lab run by Takashi D.Y. Kozai, Ph. D., at the University of Pittsburgh replaced long cables with long wavelength light and a formerly tethered electrode with a smaller, untethered one.

The research team, which includes Pitt senior bioengineering and computer engineering student Kaylene Stocking, centered the device on the principle of the photoelectric effect – a concept first described in a publication by Einstein as the local change in electric potential for an object when hit with a photon. Their design, which includes a 7-8 micron diameter carbon fiber implant, is now patent pending, and Kozai hopes that it will lead to safer and more precise advancements in neurostimulation for patients in the future.

A New Microfluidic Chip Can Detect Cancer in a Drop of Blood

Many forms of cancer cannot be detected until the disease has progressed past the point of optimum treatment time, increasing the risk for patients who receive late diagnoses of these kinds of cancer. But what if the diagnostic process could be simplified and made more efficient so that even a single drop of blood could be enough input to detect the presence of cancer in a patient? Yong Zeng, Ph.D., and his team of researchers at the University of Kansas in Lawrence sought to answer that question.

They designed a self-assembled 3D-nanopatterned microfluidic chip to increase typical microfluidic chip sensitivity so that it can now detect lower levels of tumor-associated exosomes in patient blood plasma. This is in large part due to the nanopatterns in the structure of the chip, which promote mass transfer and increase surface area, which in turn promotes surface-particle interactions in the device. The team applied the device to their studies of ovarian cancer, one of the notoriously more difficult kinds of cancer to detect early on in patients.

A Wearable Respiration Monitor Made from Shrinky Dinks

Michelle Khine, Ph. D., a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of California, Irvine incorporates Shrinky Dinks into her research. After using them once before in a medical device involving microfluidics, her lab recently worked to incorporate them into a wearable respiration monitor – a device that would be useful for patients with asthma, cystic fibrosis, and other chronic pulmonary diseases. The device has the capability to track the rate and volume of its user’s respiration based on measurements of the strain at the locations where the device makes contact with the user’s abdomen.

Paired with Bluetooth technology, this sensor can feed live readings to a smartphone app, giving constant updates to users and doctors, as opposed to the typical pulmonary function test, which only provides information from the time at which the test takes a reading. Though Khine and her team have only tested the device on healthy patients so far, they look forward to testing with patients who have pulmonary disorders, in hopes that the device will provide more comprehensive and accessible data on their respiration.

People and Places

Ashley Kimbel, a high school senior from Grissom High School in Huntsville, Alabama, designed a lightweight prosthetic leg for local Marine, Kendall Bane, after an attack in Afghanistan led him to amputate one of his legs below the knee. Bane, who likes to keep as active as possible, said the new lighter design is more ideal for activities like hiking and mountain biking, especially as any added weight makes balance during these activities more difficult. Kimbel used a CAD-modeling software produced by Siemens called Solid Edge, which the company hopes to continue improving in accessibility so that more students can start projects like Kimbel’s.

This week, we would like to congratulate Angela Belcher, Ph.D., on being named the new head of the Department of Biological Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). With her appointment to this role, now half of the MIT engineering department heads are women. Belcher’s research is in the overlap of materials science and biological engineering, with a particular focus on creating nanostructures based on the evolution of ancient organisms for applications in medical diagnostics, batteries, solar cells, and more.

We would also like to congratulate Eva Dyer, Ph.D., and Chethan Pandarinath, Ph.D., both of whom are faculty members at the Walter H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, on receiving research fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Dr. Dyer, who formerly worked with Penn bioengineering faculty member Dr. Konrad Kording while he was at Northwestern University, leads research in the field of using data analysis methods to quantify neuroanatomy. Dr. Pandarinth leads the Emory and Georgia Tech Systems Neural Engineering Lab, where he works with a team of researchers to use properties of artificial intelligence and machine learning to better understand large neural networks in the brain.