Penn Bioengineering is proud to congratulate Sunghee Estelle Park, Ph.D. on her appointment as Assistant Professor in the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering at Purdue University. Park earned her Ph.D. at Penn Bioengineering, graduating in July 2023. She conducted doctoral research in the BIOLines Lab of Dan Huh, Associate Professor in Bioengineering. Her appointment at Purdue will begin January 2024.
During her Ph.D. research, Park forged a unique path that combined principles in developmental biology, stem cell biology, organoids, and organ-on-a-chip technology to develop innovative in vitro models that can faithfully replicate the pathophysiology of various human diseases. Using a microengineered model of the human retina, she discovered previously unknown roles of the MAPK, IL-17, PI3K-AKT, and TGF-β signaling pathways in the pathogenesis of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), presenting novel therapeutic targets that could be further investigated for the development of AMD treatments. More recently, she tackled a significant challenge in the organoid field, the limited tissue growth and maturity in conventional organoid cultures, by designing microengineered systems that enabled organoids to grow with unprecedented levels of maturity and human-relevance. By integrating these platforms with bioinformatics and computational analyses, she identified novel disease-specific biomarkers of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and intestinal fibrosis, including previously unknown link between the presence of lncRNA and the development of IBD.
“The unique interdisciplinary expertise I gained from these projects has shaped me into a scholar with a strong collaborative ethos, a quality I hold in high esteem as we work towards advancing our knowledge and management of health and disease,” says Park.
Her vision as an independent researcher is to become a leading faculty who makes impactful contributions to our fundamental understanding of the factors influencing the structural and functional changes of human organs in health and disease. To achieve this, she plans to lead a stem cell bioengineering laboratory with a primary focus on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. This will involve developing human organoids-on-a-chip systems and establishing next-generation biomedical devices and therapies tailored for regenerative and personalized medicine.
“I am grateful to all my Ph.D. mentors and lab mates at the BIOLines lab and especially my advisor Dr. Dan Huh, for his exceptional guidance, unwavering support, and invaluable mentorship throughout my Ph.D. journey,” says Park. “Dan’s expertise, dedication, and commitment to excellence have been instrumental in shaping both my research and professional development, while also training me to become an independent scientist and mentor.”
Congratulations to Dr. Park from everyone at Penn Bioengineering!
The Solomon R. Pollack Award for Excellence in Graduate Bioengineering Research is given annually to the most deserving Bioengineering graduate students who have successfully completed research that is original and recognized as being at the forefront of their field. This year, the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania recognizes the stellar work of four graduate students in Bioengineering.
Dissertation: “Ionizable Lipid Nanoparticles for mRNA CAR T Cell Engineering”
Margaret earned a bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Delaware where she conducted research in the Day Lab on the use of antibody-coated gold nanoparticles for the detection of circulating tumor cells. She conducted doctoral research in the lab of Michael J. Mitchell, J. and Peter Skirkanich Assistant Professor in Bioengineering. After defending her thesis at Penn in 2022, Margaret began postdoctoral training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the Hammond Lab where she is investigating the design and application of polymeric nanoparticles for combination therapies in ovarian cancer. She plans to use these experiences to continue a research career focused on drug delivery systems.
“Maggie was an absolutely prolific Ph.D. student in my lab, who pioneered the development of new mRNA lipid nanoparticle technology to engineer the immune system to target and kill tumor cells,” says Mitchell. “Maggie is incredibly well deserving of this honor, and I am so excited to see what she accomplishes next as a Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT and ultimately as a professor running her own independent laboratory at a top academic institution.”
Dissertation: “Designing Hyaluronic Acid Granular Hydrogels for Biomaterials Applications”
Victoria is currently a Princeton University Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the lab of Sujit S. Datta, where she studies microbial community behavior in 3D environments. She obtained her Ph.D. in 2022 as an NSF Graduate Research Fellow at Penn Bioengineering under the advisement of Jason A. Burdick, Adjunct Professor in Bioengineering at Penn and Bowman Endowed Professor in Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She received a B.ChE. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Delaware in 2018 as a Eugene DuPont Scholar. Outside of research, Victoria is highly active in volunteer and leadership roles within the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), currently serving as Past Chair of the Young Professionals Community and a member of the Career and Education Operating Council (CEOC). Victoria’s career aspiration is to become a professor of chemical engineering and to lead a research program at the interaction of biomaterials, soft matter, and microbiology.
“Victoria was a fantastic Ph.D. student,” says Burdick. “She worked on important projects related to granular materials from the fundamentals to applications in tissue repair. She was also a leader in outreach activities, a great mentor to numerous undergraduates, and is already interviewing towards an independent academic position.”
Dissertation: “Characterizing Medial Temporal Lobe Neurodegeneration Due to Tau Pathology in Alzheimer’s Disease Using Postmortem Imaging”
Sadhana completed her B.S. in Electrical Engineering at the University of Cape Town, South Africa in 2014 and her M.S. in Biomedical Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University in 2017. Outside of the lab, she enjoys spending time in nature and exploring restaurants in Philadelphia with friends. She focused her doctoral work on the development of computational image analysis techniques applied to ex vivo human brain imaging data in the Penn Image Computing and Science Laboratory of Paul Yushkevich, Professor of Radiology at the Perelman School of Medicine and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group. She hopes to continue working at the intersection of machine learning and biomedical imaging to advance personalized healthcare and drug development.
“Dr. Sadhana Ravikumar’s Ph.D. work is a tour de force that combines novel methodological contributions crafted to address the challenge of anatomical variability in ultra-high resolution ex vivo human brain MRI with new clinical knowledge on the contributions of molecular pathology to neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease,” says Yushkevich. “I am thrilled that this excellent contribution, as well as Sadhana’s professionalism and commitment to mentorship, have been recognized through the Sol Pollack award.”
Dissertation: “Remote Force Guided Assembly of Complex Orthopaedic Tissues”
Hannah was a Ph.D. candidate in the lab of Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor in Orthopaedic Surgery and in Bioengineering. She successfully defended her thesis and graduated in August 2022. During her Ph.D., Hannah advanced the state-of-the-art in articular cartilage repair by harnessing remote fields, such as magnetism and gravity. Using these non-invasive forces, she was able to control cell positioning within engineered tissues, similar to the cell patterns within native cartilage, and enhance the integration between cartilage and bone. Her work could be used in many tissue engineering applications to recreate complex tissues and tissue interfaces. Hannah earned a B.S. in Biological Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2017 during which time she was also a member of the women’s varsity soccer team. At Penn, Hannah was also involved in the Graduate Association of Bioengineers (GABE) intramurals & leadership, and helped jumpstart the McKay DEI committee. Since completing her Ph.D., Hannah has begun her postdoctoral research as a Schmidt Science Fellow in Jason Burdick’s lab at the University of Colorado Boulder where she looks to improve in vitro disease models for osteoarthritis.
“Hannah was an outstanding graduate student, embodying all that is amazing about Penn BE – smart, driven, inventive and outstanding in every way,” says Mauck. “ I can’t wait to see where she goes and what she accomplishes!”
Congratulations to our four amazing 2023 Sol Pollack Award winners!
A recent study by Penn Bioengineering researchers sheds new light on the role of physics in kidney development. The kidney uses structures called nephrons and tubules to filter blood and pass urine to the bladder. Nephron number is set at birth and can vary over an order of magnitude (anywhere from 100,000 to over a million nephrons in an individual kidney). While the reasons for this variability remain unclear, low numbers of nephrons predispose patients to hypertension and chronic kidney disease.
Now, research published in Developmental Cell led by Alex J. Hughes, Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, demonstrates a new physics-driven approach to better visualize and understand how a healthy kidney develops to avoid organizational defects that would impair its function. While previous efforts have typically approached this problem using molecular genetics and mouse models, the Hughes Lab’s physics-based approach could link particular types of defects to this genetic information and possibly highlight new treatments to prevent or fix congenital defects.
During embryonic development, kidney tubules grow and the tips divide to make a branched tree with clusters of nephron stem cells surrounding each branch tip. In order to build more nephrons, the tree needs to grow more branches. To keep the branches from overlapping, the kidney’s surface grows more crowded as the number of branches increase. “At this point, it’s like adding more people to a crowded elevator,” says Louis Prahl, first author of the paper and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Hughes Lab. “The branches need to keep rearranging to accommodate more until organ growth stops.”
To understand this process, Hughes, Prahl and their team investigated branch organization in mouse kidneys as well as using computer models and a 3D printed model of tubules. Their results show that tubules have to actively restructure – essentially divide at narrower angles – to accommodate more tubules. Computer simulations also identified ‘defective’ packing, in which the simulation parameters caused tubules to either overlap or be forced beneath the kidney surface. The team’s experimentation and analysis of published studies of genetic mouse models of kidney disease confirmed that these defects do occur.
This study represents a unique synthesis of different fields to understand congenital kidney disease. Mathematicians have studied geometric packing problems for decades in other contexts, but the structural features of the kidney present new applications for these models. Previous models of kidney branching have approached these problems from the perspective of individual branches or using purely geometric models that don’t account for tissue mechanics. By contrast, The Hughes Lab’s computer model demonstrates the physics of how tubule families interact with each other, allowing them to identify ‘phases’ of kidney organization that either relate to normal kidney development or organizational defects. Their 3D printed model of tubules shows that these effects can occur even when one sets the biology aside.
Hughes has been widely recognized for his research in the understanding of kidney development. This new publication is the first fruit of his 2021 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and he was recently named a 2023 Rising Star by the Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering (CMBE) Special Interest Group. In 2020 he became the first Penn Engineering faculty member to receive the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for his forward-thinking work in the creation of new tools for tissue engineering.
Pediatric nephrologists have long worked to understand the cause of these childhood kidney defects. These efforts are often confounded by a lack of evidence for a single causative mutation. The Hughes Lab’s approach presents a new and different application of the packing problem and could help answer some of these unsolved questions and open doors to prevention of these diseases. Following this study, Hughes and his lab members will continue to explore the physics of kidney tubule packing, looking for interesting connections between packing organization, mechanical stresses between neighboring tubule tips, and nephron formation while attempting to copy these principles to build stem cell derived tissues to replace damaged or diseased kidney tissue. Mechanical forces play an important role in developmental biology and there is much scope for Hughes, Prahl and their colleagues to learn about these properties in relation to the kidney.
The Hughes Lab in Penn Bioengineering works to “bring developmental processes that operate in vertebrate embryos and regenerating organs under an engineering control framework” in order to “build better tissues.” Hughes’s research interest is in harnessing the developmental principles of organs, allowing him to design medically relevant scaffolds and machines. In 2020 he became the first Penn Engineering faculty member to receive the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and he was awarded a prestigious CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2021. Most recently, Hughes’s work has focused on understanding the development of cells and tissues in the human kidney via the creation of “organoids”: miniscule organ models that can mimic the biochemical and mechanical properties of the developing kidney. Understanding and engineering how the kidney functions could open doors to more successful regenerative medicine strategies to address highly prevalent congenital and adult diseases.
Hughes and his fellow award recipients were recognized at the annual BMES CBME conference in Indian Wells, CA in January 2023.
When it comes to human bodies, there is no such thing as typical. Variation is the rule. In recent years, the biological sciences have increased their focus on exploring the poignant lack of norms between individuals, and medical and pharmaceutical researchers are asking questions about translating insights concerning biological variation into more precise and compassionate care.
What if therapies could be tailored to each patient? What would happen if we could predict an individual body’s response to a drug before trial-and-error treatment? Is it possible to understand the way a person’s disease begins and develops so we can know exactly how to cure it?
An innovator of organ-on-a-chip technology, or miniature copies of bodily systems stored in plastic devices no larger than a thumb drive, Huh has broadened his attention to engineering mini-organs in a dish using a patient’s own cells.
Two Penn Bioengineering Professors have received awards in the 7th Annual Celebration of Innovation from the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI).
Dongeun (Dan) Huh, Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, was named the 2022 Inventor of the Year. D. Kacy Cullen, Associate Professor of Neurosurgery with a secondary appointment in Bioengineering, accepted the Deal of the Year Award on behalf of his company Innervace along with Co-Scientific Founder Douglas H. Smith, Robert A. Groff Professor of Teaching and Research in Neurosurgery in the Perelman School of Medicine.
PCI is interdisciplinary center for technology commercialization and startups in the Penn community. Their 7th Annual Celebration, held on December 6, 2022 at the Singh Center for Nanotechnology, honored Penn researchers and inventors whose achievements were a particular highlight of the fiscal year.
Huh was honored in recognition of his “extraordinary innovations in bioengineering tools.” The Huh Biologically Inspired Engineering Systems Laboratory (BIOLines) Laboratory is a leader in tissue engineering and cell-based smart biomedical devices, particularly in the “lab-on-a-chip” field of devices which can approximate the functioning of organs. Their research has been featured by the National Science Foundation (NSF, video below) and Wired, and has received a competitive Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) grant. Most recently, their “implantation-on-a-chip” technology has been used to better understand early-stage pregnancy. Huh and former lab member Andrei Georgescu (Ph.D. in Bioengineering, 2021) founded the spinoff company Vivodyne to bring this organ-on-a-chip technology to the industry sector. Fast Company included Vivodyne in a list of “most innovative” companies.
Innervace, represented by Cullen and Smith, took home the Deal of the Year award in recognition of its “successful Series A funding.” Innervace is another Penn spinoff which develops “anatomically inspired living scaffolds for brain pathway reconstruction.” Innervace raised up to $40 million in Series A financing to “accelerate a new cell therapy modality for the treatment of neurological disorders.” The Cullen Lab at Penn Medicine combines neuroengineering, regenerative medicine, and the study of neurotrauma to improve understanding of neural injury and develop cutting-edge neural tissue engineering-based treatments to promote regeneration and restore function.
Read the full list of 2022 PCI Award winners here.
If you’d read about it in a science fiction novel, you might not have believed it. Human organs and organ systems — from lungs to blood vessels to blinking eyes — bio-miniaturized and stored on a plastic chip no larger than a matchbook.
But that’s the breathing, blinking reality at the Biologically Inspired Engineering Systems (BIOLines) Laboratory in the Department of Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, a bona fide pioneer of what is now widely known as “organ-on-a-chip” technology. Proponents hope these devices can one day help scientists around the world learn more about the body’s inner workings and ultimately improve disease prevention and treatment.
“The century-old practice of cell culture is to grow living cells isolated from the human body in hard plastic dishes and keep them bathed in copious amounts of culture media under static conditions, and that is drastically different than the complex, dynamic environment of native tissues in which these cell reside,” said Dan Dongeun Huh, Ph.D., BIOLines’ principal investigator and an associate professor of Bioengineering in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “What makes this organ-on-a-chip technology so unique and powerful is that it enables us to reverse-engineer living human tissues using microengineered devices and mimic their intricate biological interactions and physiological functions in ways that have not been possible using traditional cell culture techniques. This represents a major advance in our ability to model and understand the inner workings of complex physiological systems in the human body.”
Generally speaking, organ-on-a-chip devices are made of clear silicone rubber — the same material used to make contact lenses — and can vary in size and design. Embedded within are microfabricated three-dimensional chambers lined with different human cell types, arranged and propagated to ultimately form a structure complex enough to actually mimic the essential elements of a functioning organ.
With partners at the Perelman School of Medicine, BIOLines recently developed a newer variation of the organ-on-a-chip: one that replicates the interface between maternal tissue and the cells of the placenta at the critical moments in early pregnancy when the embryo is implanting in the uterus. Huh and Penn Medicine physicians led a study using the “implantation-on-a-chip” to observe things that would otherwise have been virtually unobservable.
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.”
Buffone got his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from SUNY Buffalo in Buffalo, NY in 2012, working with advisor Sriram Neelamegham, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Buffone completed previous postdoctoral studies at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center with Joseph T.Y. Lau, Distinguished Professor of Oncology in the department of Cellular and Molecular Biology. Upon coming to Penn in 2015, Buffone has worked in the Hammer Lab under advisor Daniel A. Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in Bioengineering and in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, first as a postdoc and later a research associate. Buffone also spent a year as a Visiting Scholar in the Center for Bioengineering and Tissue Regeneration, directed by Valerie M. Weaver, Professor at the University of California, San Francisco in 2019.
While at Penn, Buffone was a co-investigator on an R21 grant through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which supported his time as a research associate. Buffone is excited to start his own laboratory where he plans to train a diverse set of trainees.
Buffone’s research area lies at the intersection of genetic engineering, immunology, and glycobiology and addresses how to specifically tailor the trafficking and response of immune cells to inflammation and various diseases. The work seeks to identify and subsequently modify critical cell surface and intracellular signaling molecules governing the recruitment of various blood cell types to distal sites. The ultimate goal of his research is to tailor and personalize the innate and adaptive immune response to specific diseases on demand.
“None of this would have been possible without the unwavering support of all of my mentors, past and present, and most especially Dan Hammer,” Buffone says. “His support in helping me transition into an independent scientist and his understanding of my outside responsibilities as a dad with two young children is truly the reason why I am standing here today. It’s a testament to Dan as both a person and a mentor.”
Penn Bioengineering alumna Cynthia Reinhart-King, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Engineering and Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Vanderbilt University, was elected the next President of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), the largest professional society for biomedical engineers. Her term as president-elect started at the annual BMES meeting in October 2021.
Reinhart-King graduated with her Ph.D. from Penn Bioengineering in 2006. She studied in the lab of Daniel Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering as a Whitaker Fellow and went on to complete postdoctoral training as an Individual NIH NRSA postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester. Prior to joining Vanderbilt, she was on the faculty of Cornell University and received tenure in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. The Reinhart-King lab at Vanderbilt “uses tissue engineering, microfabrication, novel biomaterials, model organisms, and tools from cell and molecular biology to study the effects of mechanical and chemical changes in tissues during disease progression.”
Reinhart-King gave the 2019 Grace Hopper Distinguished Lecture, sponsored by the Department of Bioengineering. This lecture series recognizes successful women in engineering and seeks to inspire students to achieve at the highest level. She is a recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including the Rita Schaffer Young Investigator Award in 2010, an NSF CAREER Award, and the Mid-Career Award in 2018 from BMES.
“BMES is facing many challenges, like many societies, as we deal with the hurdles associated with COVID-19 and inequities across society. We must continue to address those challenges. However, we are also in a terrific window of having robust membership, many members who are eager to get involved with the society’s activities, and a national lens on science and scientists. One of my goals will be to identify and create opportunities for our members to help build the reach of the society and its member.”
Read “Cynthia Reinhart-King is president-elect of the Biomedical Engineering Society” in Vanderbilt News.