In September 2021, Penn President Amy Gutmann and Vijay Kumar, Dean of the Nemirovsky Family at 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 adapted for diagnostics, treatments and individualized therapies.
Now, Daniel A. Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in the Departments of Biological Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Penn Engineering, has been named the inaugural Director of CPE4H.
“Penn is a unique environment where healthcare innovations can emerge very quickly, as we have seen with the development of CAR-T cancer immunotherapy and the design and delivery of mRNA vaccines,” said said Dr. Hammer. “Engineering plays a central role in making these technologies work 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.”
With CPE4H being one of three signature initiatives in Penn Engineering’s strategic plan, the school’s first priority is to hire ten new faculty members whose expertise will have a long-term impact on its research program. global. Dr. Hammer leads the center’s search committee, made up of professors from Penn Engineering and Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, which aims to recruit in four key areas:
- Medication administration, such as the development of lipid nanoparticles capable of safely encapsulating mRNA and other valuable active agents, such as proteins, DNA, CRISPR enzymes and guides, and antibiotics, and bringing them at the most appropriate site of action. These nanoparticles have already been critical to the success of COVID-19 vaccines, but other packaging materials and surface customizations can be developed to target specific organs or promote complementary biological responses when delivery vehicles release their payloads.
- Biomimicry, including fully synthetic materials based on the design of biological cells and tissues. These materials would communicate with the body using the same principles natural cells use to signal to each other. Such materials could interface with immune system memory cells, improve vaccine efficacy or prevent autoimmune diseases, or lead to the assembly of organoids or organ-like materials that can be used to produce or test biological molecules in vitro.
- Reactive biodevices, or assemblies of biological material sensitive to external stimuli, such as light, heat or mechanical stress. Such devices could include gel-like scaffolds that can stiffen or relax based on a pre-programmed signal, causing cells or tissues to respond, or light-activated implantable materials that heal damaged tissue by releasing small molecules.
- Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) for an integrated and multicellular response. Advanced microstructured materials that are hybrids of biological and non-biological materials, MEMS can be used to connect cells in circuit-like arrangements. Examples can include self-powered implantable electrodes that can monitor or expand neural activity for memory or therapeutic intervention.
Dr. Hammer envisions CPE4H connecting the broad community of research centers within Penn Engineering and Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, such as Penn Health-Tech, Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics, Institute of Medicine regenerative, the Institute of Immunology and the new formed the Penn Anti-Cancer Engineering Center, with collaborations through interdisciplinary seminars and workshops, as well as seed funding for high-risk, high-risk research. high yield that leads to commercialization.
“Penn has a huge advantage in this space, given that medicine and engineering are on the same contiguous campus. It’s a place where an engineering student can attend a medical school seminar and not skip a beat in their own lab,” Dr. Hammer said. “Combined with the talent of Penn’s campus, it’s an incredible environment to do creative science at the interface between engineering and healthcare.”
The transformative potential of work at this interface is why CPE4H was selected as one of the school’s three flagship initiatives.
“CPE4H is creating an unparalleled ecosystem of people and ideas, using engineering principles to enable healthy lifespans never seen before in history,” said David F. Meaney, Senior Associate Dean and Professor Solomon R Pollack at Penn Engineering’s bioengineering department. “Inspired by interdisciplinary science, connected to the human condition, and widely accessible to the world, the center truly embodies the ideals of Penn Engineering.”
“I appreciate and am grateful for the support of the school and Dean Kumar in choosing me to lead this important signing initiative,” Dr. Hammer said.