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.”
With CPE4H serving as one of the three signature initiatives in Penn Engineering’s Strategic Plan, the School’s first priority is the hiring of ten new faculty members whose expertise will have long-term impact on its overall research agenda. Hammer is leading the Center’s search committee, featuring faculty from Penn Engineering and Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, which aims to recruit in four key areas:
- Drug delivery, such as the development of lipid nanoparticles that can safely encapsulate mRNA and other high-value active agents, such as proteins, DNA, CRISPR enzymes and guides, and antibiotics and get them to the most appropriate site of action. Such 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 as delivery vehicles release their payloads.
- Biomimicry, including entirely synthetic materials that are based on the design of biological cells and tissue. These materials would communicate with the body using the same principles that natural cells use to signal to one another. Such materials could interface with the immune system’s memory cells, improving the efficacy of vaccines or preventing autoimmune disorders, or lead to the assembly of organoids, or organ-like materials that can be used to produce or test biological molecules in vitro.
- Responsive biodevices, or assemblies of biological material that are sensitive to external stimuli, such as light, heat or mechanical stress. Such devices could include gel-like scaffoldings that can stiffen or relax depending on a pre-programmed cue, prompting the response of cells or tissues, or implantable, light-activated materials that heal damaged tissue by releasing small molecules.
- Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) for integrated, 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 might include implantable, self-powering electrodes which can monitor or extend neural activity for memory or therapeutic intervention.
Hammer envisions CPE4H connecting and leveraging the extensive community of research centers within Penn Engineering and Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, such as Penn Health-Tech, the Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics, the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the Institute for Immunology, and the newly formed Penn Anti-Cancer Engineering Center, with collaborations through interdisciplinary seminars and workshops, as well as through seed funding for high-risk, high-reward research thats leads to commercialization.
“Penn has an enormous advantage in this space, given that medicine and engineering are on the same contiguous campus. It is a place where a student in engineering can go to a medical school seminar and not skip a beat in their own labs,” Hammer says. “Combined with the talent on the Penn campus, it’s an amazing environment for doing creative science at the interface between engineering and health.”
The transformative potential for work at that interface is why the CPE4H was selected as one of the School’s three signature initiatives.
“CPE4H creates an unparalleled ecosystem of people and ideas, using engineering principles to enable a healthy lifespan never seen before in history,” says David F. Meaney, Senior Associate Dean and Solomon R. Pollack Professor in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering. “Inspired by interdisciplinary science, connected to the human condition, and broadly accessible to the world, the Center truly embodies Penn Engineering’s ideals.”
“I appreciate and am grateful for the support of the School and to Dean Kumar in selecting me to spearhead this important signature initiative,” says Hammer.