The National Science Foundation’s Research Traineeship Program aims to support graduate students, educate the STEM leaders of tomorrow and strengthen the national research infrastructure. The program’s latest series of grants are going toward university programs focused on artificial intelligence and quantum information science and engineering – two areas of high priority in academia, industry and government.
Chinedum Osuji, Eduardo D. Glandt Presidential Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), has received one of these grants to apply data science and machine learning to the field of soft materials. The grant will provide five years of support and a total of $3 million for a new Penn project on Data Driven Soft Materials Research.
Osuji will work with co-PIs Russell Composto, Professor and Howell Family Faculty Fellow in Materials Science and Engineering, Bioengineering, and in CBE, Zahra Fakhraai, Associate Professor of Chemistry in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences (SAS) with a secondary appointment in CBE, Paris Perdikaris, Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, and Andrea Liu, Hepburn Professor of Physics and Astronomy in SAS, all of whom will help run the program and provide the connections between the multiple fields of study where its students will train.
These and other affiliated faculty members will work closely with co-PI Kristin Field, who will serve as Program Coordinator and Director of Education.
The Penn Center for Precision Engineering for Health (CPE4H) was established late last year to accelerate engineering solutions to significant problems in healthcare. The center is one of the signature initiatives for Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and is supported by a $100 million commitment to hire faculty and support new research on innovative approaches to those problems.
Acting on that commitment, CPE4H solicited proposals during the spring of 2022 for seed grants of $80K per year for two years for research projects that address healthcare challenges in several key areas of strategic importance to Penn: synthetic biology and tissue engineering, diagnosis and drug delivery, and the development of innovative devices. While the primary investigators (PIs) for the proposed projects were required to have a primary faculty appointment within Penn Engineering, teams involving co-PIs and collaborators from other schools were eligible for support. The seed program is expected to continue for the next four years.
“It was a delight to read so many novel and creative proposals,” says Daniel A. Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in Bioengineering and the Inaugural Director of CPE4H. “It was very hard to make the final selection from a pool of such promising projects.”
Judged on technical innovation, potential to attract future resources, and ability to address a significant medical problem, the following research projects were selected to receive funding.
Evolving and Engineering Thermal Control of Mammalian Cells
Led by Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, this project will engineer molecular switches that can be toggled on and off inside mammalian cells at near-physiological temperatures. Successful development of these switches will provide new ways to communicate with cells, an advance that could be used to make safer and more effective cellular therapies. The project will use directed evolution to generate and find candidate molecular tools with the desired properties. Separately, the research will also develop new technology for manipulating cellular temperature in a rapid and programmable way. Such devices will enhance the speed and sophistication of studies of biological temperature regulation.
A Quantum Sensing Platform for Rapid and Accurate Point-of-Care Detection of Respiratory Viral Infections
Combining microfluidics and quantum photonics, PI Liang Feng, Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, Ritesh Agarwal, Professor in Materials Science Engineering, and Shu Yang, Joseph Bordogna Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, are teaming up with Ping Wang, Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, to design, build and test an ultrasensitive point-of-care detector for respiratory pathogens. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, a generalizable platform for rapid and accurate detection of viral pathogenesis would be extremely important and timely.
Versatile Coacervating Peptides as Carriers and Synthetic Organelles for Cell Engineering
PI Amish Patel, Associate Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Matthew C. Good, Associate Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in the Perelman School of Medicine and in Bioengineering, will design and create small proteins that self-assemble into droplet-like structures known as coacervates, which can then pass through the membranes of biological cells. Upon cellular entry, these protein coacervates can disassemble to deliver cargo that modulates cell behavior or be maintained as synthetic membraneless organelles. The team will design new chemistries that will facilitate passage across cell membranes, and molecular switches to sequester and release protein therapeutics. If successful, this approach could be used to deliver a wide range of macromolecule drugs to cells.
Towards an Artificial Muscle Replacement for Facial Reanimation
Cynthia Sung, Gabel Family Term Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics and Computer Information Science, will lead a research team including Flavia Vitale, Assistant Professor of Neurology and Bioengineering, and Niv Milbar, Assistant Instructor in Surgery in the Perelman School of Medicine. The team will develop and validate an electrically driven actuator to restore basic muscle responses in patients with partial facial paralysis, which can occur after a stroke or injury. The research will combine elements of robotics and biology, and aims to produce a device that can be clinically tested.
“These novel ideas are a great way to kick off the activities of the center,” says Hammer. “We look forward to soliciting other exciting seed proposals over the next several years.”
Earlier this year, Penn President Amy Gutmann and Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, announced a $100 million commitment to accelerate innovations in medical technologies. Called the Center for Precision Engineering for Health (CPE4H), the initiative aims to bring together researchers from a wide range of fields to develop customizable biomaterials and implantable devices that can be tailored for individualized diagnostics, treatments and therapies.
Now, Daniel A. Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in Penn Engineering’s Departments of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has been named CPE4H’s inaugural director.
“Penn is a unique environment where innovations in healthcare can emerge very rapidly, as we’ve seen with the development of CAR-T cancer immunotherapy, and the design and delivery of mRNA vaccines,” Hammer says. “Engineering plays a central role in making those technologies functional and maximizing their impact, and CPE4H is a golden opportunity to take these technologies to the next level in a way that actually helps people.”
Penn Health-Tech’s Nemirovsky Engineering and Medicine Opportunity (NEMO) Prize awards $80,000 to support early-stage ideas joining engineering and medicine. The goal of the prize is to encourage collaboration between the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Engineering and Applied Science by supporting innovative ideas that might not receive funding from traditional sources.
This year, the NEMO Prize has been awarded to a team of researchers from Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering. Their project aims to develop a technology that can detect multiple cancer biomarkers in single cells from tumor biopsy samples.
As cancer cells grow in the body, one of the characteristics that influences tumor growth and response to treatment is cancer cell state heterogeneity, or differences in cell states. Methods that rapidly catalogue cell heterogeneity may be able to detect rare cells responsible for tumor growth and drug resistance.
Single-cell transcriptomics (scRNA-seq) is the standard method for studying cell states; by amplifying and analyzing the cell’s complement of RNA sequences at a given time, researchers can get a snapshot of what proteins the cell is in the process of making. However, this method does not fully capture the function of the cell. The field of proteomics, which captures the actual protein content of cells along with post-translational modifications, provides a better picture of the cell’s function, but single-cell proteomic methods with the same sensitivity as scRNA-seq do not currently exist.
This collaborative project, which joins Assistant Professors Alex Hughes and Lukasz Bugaj, as well as Professor Andrew Tsourkas, aims to change that by developing multiplexed, sensitive and highly specific single-cell proteomics technologies to advance our understanding of cancer, its detection and its treatment.
This new technology, called scProteome-seq, builds from Hughes’s previous work.
“My specific expertise here is as an inventor of single-cell western blotting, which is the core technology that our team is building on,” says Hughes. “Single-cell proteomics technologies of this type have a track-record of commercial translation for applications in basic science and clinical automation, so our approach has a high potential for real-world impact.”
The current technology from Hughes’ lab separates proteins in cells by their molecular weight and “blots” them on a piece of paper. Improvements to this technology included in this project will remove the limitation of using light-emitting dyes to detect different proteins and instead use DNA barcodes to differentiate them.
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.
The University of Pennsylvania’s 2021 iGEM team has been awarded several distinctions in this year’s highly competitive iGEM Competition. The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition is the largest synthetic biology community and the premiere synthetic biology competition for both university and high school level students from around the world. Each year, hundreds of interdisciplinary teams of students combine molecular biology techniques and engineering concepts to create novel biological systems and compete for prizes and awards through oral presentations and poster sessions.
The Penn team’s project, “OptoReader,” is a combined light-simulation device and plate reader, which makes optogenetic experiments more powerful and accessible. The abstract reads:
“Metabolic engineering has the potential to change the world, and optogenetic tools can make metabolic engineering research easier by providing spatiotemporal control over cells. However, current optogenetic experiments are low-throughput, expensive, and laborious, which makes them inaccessible to many. To tackle this problem, we combined a light-stimulation device with a plate reader, creating our OptoReader. This device allows us to automate ~100 complex optogenetic experiments at the same time. Because it is open source and inexpensive, our device would make optogenetic experiments more efficient and available to all.”
This year’s Penn team was mentored by Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering. In addition, the team was supported by Brian Chow, Associate Professor in Bioengineering. Chow has supported previous undergraduate iGEM teams at Penn, and was involved in the creation of the iGEM program during his time as a graduate student at MIT.
OptoReader took home the top prizes in three of the four categories in which it was nominated. These prizes include:
Best Foundational Advance (best in track)
Best Hardware (best from all undergraduate teams)
Best Presentation (best from all undergraduate teams)
They were also awarded a Gold Medal Distinction and were included in the Top 10 Overall (from all undergraduate teams, and the only team from the United States to make the top 10) and Top 10 Websites (from all undergraduate teams).
The awards were announced during iGEM’s online Jamboree Award Ceremony on November 14, 2021 (watch the full award ceremony here).
In addition to the outstanding awards recognition, OptoReader was also selected for an iGEM Impact Grant which awards teams $2,500 to continue development of their projects. This new initiative from the iGEM Foundation was announced earlier this year, and with the support of the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Foundation, is distributing a total of $225,000 in grant funds to 90 iGEM teams during the 2021 competition season. Learn more about the Impact Grant and read the full list of winning teams here.
Penn’s 2021 iGEM team was made up of an interdisciplinary group of women undergraduates from the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) and the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS):
Saachi Datta (B.A. in Biology and Religious Studies 2021)
Juliette Hooper (B.S.E. and M.S.E. in Bioengineering 2022)
Gabrielle Leavitt (B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2021 and current Master’s student in Bioengineering)
Gloria Lee (B.A. in Physics and B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2023)
Grace Qian (B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2023)
Lana Salloum (B.A. in Neuroscience 2022)
They were mentored by three doctoral students in Bioengineering: Will Benman (Bugaj Lab), David Gonzalez Martinez (Bugaj Lab), Gabrielle Ho (Chow Lab). Saurabh Malani, a graduate student in the Avalos Lab at Prince University, was also very involved in mentoring the team.
The graduate mentors were instrumental in quickly bringing the undergraduates up to speed on a diverse array of skills needed to accomplish this project including circuit design, optics, optogenetics, programming, and additive manufacturing. They then coached the team through building and testing prototypes, as well as accomplishing other objectives required for success at iGEM. These other objectives included establishing collaborations with other iGEM teams, performing outreach, and effectively communicating their project through a website and online presentations.
“This team and their work is outstanding,” said William Benman. “Not only did they sweep several awards, but they did it all with a small team and while working with technology they had no prior experience with. They created a device that not only increases accessibility to optogenetics but also allows optogenetic systems to interface directly with computer programs, allowing for completely new research avenues within the field. They are truly a remarkable group.”
Due to the COVID pandemic, the team operated virtually through the summer of 2020, and then continued in person in the summer of 2021 as the project progressed and more students returned to Penn’s campus. Upon return to campus, the work was conducted in both the Bugaj lab in the Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace, the primary teaching laboratory in Penn Bioengineering and an interdisciplinary makerspace open to anyone at Penn. The team also collaborated with the Avalos Lab at Princeton University, which conducts research in the application of optogenetics to optimize production of valuable chemicals in microbes.
“I’m beyond excited about this phenomenal showing from team Penn at the iGEM Jamboree awards ceremony,” said faculty mentor Lukasz Bugaj. “This is truly outstanding recognition for what the team has accomplished, and it wouldn’t have happened without essential contributions from everyone on the team.”
Brian Chow added that this achievement is “no small feat,” especially for a hardware project. “The iGEM competition leans toward genetic strain engineering, but the advances in the field made by these incredible students were undeniable,” he said.
Going forward, the team plans to publish a scientific article and file a patent application describing their device. “It’s clear that there is excitement in the scientific community for what our students created, and we’re excited to share the details and designs of their work,” said Bugaj.
Congratulations to all the team members and mentors of OptoReader on this incredible achievement! Check out the OptoReader project website and Instagram to learn more about their project.
Yogesh Goyal, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in Genetics and Bioengineering, has been selected as a 2021 STAT Wunderkind, which honors the “next generation of scientific superstars.” Goyal’s research is centered around developing novel mathematical and experimental frameworks to study how a rare subpopulation of cancer cells are able to survive drug therapy and develop resistance, resulting in relapse in patients. In particular, his work provides a view of different paths that single cancer cells take when becoming resistant, at unprecedented resolution and scale. This research aims to help devise novel therapeutic strategies to combat the challenge of drug resistance in cancer.
Goyal is a Jane Coffin Childs Postdoctoral Fellow in the systems biology lab of Arjun Raj, Professor in Bioengineering and Genetics at Penn. He will begin an appointment as Assistant Professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology (CDB) in the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in spring 2022.
Jane graduated in Fall 2017 with both a B.S.E. in Bioengineering (with a Medical Devices Concentration) and M.S.E. in Bioengineering. Jane is currently an Automation Engineer at Mosa Meat (Maastricht, Netherlands) working on laboratory tools to scale up cultured beef production. Formerly, she was a Research & Development Engineer at Opentrons (Brooklyn, New York) working on affordable robots for life sciences research. She is also an instructor with Genspace Community Biology Lab (Brooklyn, New York).
“While at Penn, I worked in the Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory and Bio-MakerSpace and in the Chow Lab as a student researcher. The educational lab was a free space to mess around with rapid prototyping tools, including 3D printing, laser cutting, Arduino, and much more. The experience in synthetic biology research encouraged me to think of biology with an engineering lens and to have the confidence to plan my own experiments. The people I got to work with at the BioMakerSpace and the Chow Lab kept me optimistic through challenging semesters and excited to learn.
With this excitement to keep learning, I decided to submatriculate into the Bioengineering Master’s program. Because of the program’s flexibility, I could choose from a mix of project-based courses, like Biomechatronics and Modeling Biological Systems, and literature-based courses, like Tissue Engineering and Musculoskeletal Bioengineering. Outside of Bioengineering, I took classes to sharpen skills in part fabrication (Machine Design and Manufacturing) and programming (Computer Vision & Computational Photography). This breadth helped me realize how much I could do with a foundation in coding and mechanical design and an understanding of the life sciences.
Beyond Penn Engineering, I was involved in Penn Dance Company, CityStep Penn, and the Science & Technology Wing. Penn Dance was a necessary break for my body and mind. CityStep was a way to connect with the larger Philadelphia community through performing arts. STWing showed me how playful engineering can be. After a couple years on campus, I also built up the confidence to bike off campus. If you have a good helmet and quick reflexes, I really recommend it to explore more of Philly!”
This post is part of BE’s Alumni Spotlight series. Read more testimonies from BE Alumni on the BE website.
Speaker: María M. Coronel, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow, the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering
Georgia Institute of Technology
Date: Thursday, February 18, 2021
Time: 3:00-4:00 PM EST
Zoom – check email for link or contact email@example.com
Title: “Engineering Synthetic Biomaterials for Islet Transplantation”
Two major challenges to the translation of cellular-based tissue-engineered therapies are the lack of adequate oxygen support post-implantation and the need for systemic immunosuppression to halt the strong inflammatory and immunological response of the host. As such, strategies that aim at addressing oxygen demand, and local immunological responses can be highly beneficial in the translation of these therapies. In this seminar, I will focus on two biomaterial strategies to create a more favorable transplant niche for pancreatic islet transplantation. The first half will describe an in-situ oxygen-releasing biomaterial fabricated through the incorporation of solid peroxides in a silicone polymer. The implementation of this localized, controlled and sustained oxygen-generator mitigates the activation of detrimental hypoxia-induced pathways in islets and enhances the potency of extrahepatic 3D islet-loaded devices in a diabetic animal model. In the second part, I will focus on engineering synthetic biomaterials for the delivery of immunomodulatory signals for transplant acceptance. Biomaterial carriers fabricated with polyethylene glycol microgels are used to deliver immunomodulatory signals to regulate the local microenvironment and prevent allograft rejection in a clinically relevant pre-clinical transplant model. The use of synthetic materials as an off-the-shelf platform, without the need for manipulating the biological cell product, improves the clinical translatability of this engineered approach. Designing safer, responsive biomaterials to boost the delivery of targeted therapeutics will significantly reinvigorate interventional cell-based tissue-engineered therapies.
Dr. María M. Coronel is currently a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Dr. Coronel completed her BS degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Miami, and her Ph.D. degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Florida as a National Institute of Health predoctoral fellow. Her doctoral work focused on engineering oxygen-generating materials for addressing the universal challenge of hypoxia within three-dimensional tissue-engineered implants. As a postdoctoral fellow, her research interest focus on engineering tools and principles to understand, stimulate, and modulate the immune system to develop controlled targeted interventional therapies. In addition to research, Dr. Coronel aims to be an advocate for diversity and inclusion in STEM as the co-president of the postdoctoral group and a founding member of the diversity, equity, and inclusion committee in bioengineering at Georgia Tech. Outside of the lab María enjoys cooking, baking, and traveling.
The idea that mechanical stresses influence the growth and form of organs and organisms originated in the 1800s and is the basis for the modern study of biomechanics and mechanobiology. Biomechanics and mechanobiology are well studied in eukaryotic systems, yet eukaryotes represent only a small portion of the diversity and abundance of life on Earth. Bacteria exhibit broad influences on human health (as both pathogens and as beneficial components of the gut microbiome) and processes used in biotechnology and synthetic biology. Over the past eight years my group has explored mechanobiology within individual bacteria and the effects of changes in the composition of commensal bacterial communities on the biomechanics in the musculoskeletal system.
The ability of the bacteria to not only resist mechanical loads (biomechanics) but also to respond to changes in the mechanical environment (mechanobiology) is necessary for survival. Here I describe a novel microfluidic platform used to explore the biomechanics and mechanobiology of individual, live bacteria. I discuss work from my group demonstrating that mechanical stress within the bacterial cell envelope can influence the assembly and function of multicomponent efflux pumps used by bacteria to resist toxins and antibiotics. Additionally, I share some of our more recent work showing that mechanical stress and strain within the bacterial cell envelope can stimulate a bacterial two-component system controlling gene expression. Our findings demonstrate that bacteria, like mammalian cells, have mechanosensitive systems that are key to survival.
In musculoskeletal disease, bacteria are commonly viewed as sources of infection. However, in the past decade the studies by my group and others have suggested that commensal bacteria – the microbiome – can modulate the pathogenesis of musculoskeletal disorders. My group is among the first to study the effects of the gut microbiome on orthopaedic disorders. Here I provide an introduction to the microbiome and current concepts of how modifications to the gut microbiome could influence the musculoskeletal system. Specifically, I discuss studies from my group which are the first to demonstrate that the gut microbiome influences bone biomechanics and the development of infection of orthopaedic implants.
Dr. Hernandez is Professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University and is an Adjunct Scientist at the Hospital for Special Surgery. Dr. Hernandez is a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE), the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research (ASBMR). He is the 2018 recipient of the Fuller Albright Award for Scientific Excellence from the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research. He has served on the Board of Directors of the Orthopaedic Research Society and the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research. His laboratory’s research currently focuses on the effects of the microbiome on bone and joint disorders, periprosthetic joint infection and the biomechanics and mechanobiology of bacteria.