The Heart and Soul of Innovation: Noor Momin Harnesses the Immune System To Treat Heart Disease

Portrait of Noor Momin, Stephenson Foundation Term Assistant Professor of Innovation
Noor Momin, Stephenson Foundation Term Assistant Professor of Innovation

While growing up, Noor Momin, who joined the Department of Bioengineering in January as the Stephenson Foundation Term Assistant Professor of Innovation, imagined becoming a physician. Becoming a doctor seemed like a tangible way for someone interested in science to make a difference. Not until college did she realize the impact she could have as a bioengineer instead.

“I was taping microscope slides together,” Momin recalls of her initial experience as an undergraduate researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. “I didn’t even know what a Ph.D. was.”

It wasn’t until co-authoring her first paper, which explores how lipids, the water-repelling molecules that make up cell membranes (and also fats and oils), can switch between more fluid and less fluid arrangements, that Momin understood the degree to which bioengineering can influence medicine. “Someone could potentially use that paper for drug design,” Momin says.

Today, Momin’s research applies her molecular expertise to heart disease, which despite numerous advances in treatment — from coronary artery bypass surgery to cholesterol-lowering statins — remains the primary cause of mortality worldwide.

As Momin sees it, the conventional wisdom of treating the heart like a mechanical pump, whose pipes can be replaced or whose throughput can be treated to prevent clogging in the first place, overshadows the immune system’s critical role in the development of heart disease.

When plaques build up in blood vessels, for instance, monocytes, a type of white blood cell that normally protects the body from pathogens, can lodge in the plaque, causing inflammation that may eventually lead to the plaque’s rupture.

One way Momin proposes to address this sort of problem is through the creation of novel antibodies, the Y-shaped proteins that our immune systems use to tackle invaders, binding them tightly like linebackers wrapping up their opponents.

In collaboration with the lab of Michael J. Mitchell, Associate Professor in Bioengineering, Momin is already developing a new class of nanoparticles, a medicinal vehicle so small that thousands of them could fit into a single human cell. “We’re trying to really hone their delivery,” Momin says, “using my group’s protein-engineering expertise to decorate them with antibodies to direct them.”

These antibodies will, in theory, allow medicines for cardiovascular disease to find their way to precisely the right location, such as a collection of monocytes running amok in an arterial plaque and causing dangerous levels of inflammation. “This will hopefully open a whole new avenue for drug delivery in cardiovascular disease,” Momin says.

This summer, Momin’s lab will be among the first to move into new spaces in One uCity Square, which will bring together researchers from Penn Engineering and Penn Medicine. “It’s almost unbelievable,” Momin says of the opportunities for partnership among labs afforded by the facility.

That very culture of collaboration, which prizes interdisciplinary research, is what brought Momin to Penn Engineering. “Penn is the right place to do this work,” says Momin, whose lab has already welcomed two graduate students, and will be recruiting undergraduates in the near future.

In building a new lab, Momin recognizes the starring role mentorship played in her own research experience, beginning at the University of Texas at Austin with Jeanne Stachowiak, now the T. Brockett Hudson Professor in Chemical Engineering. “I was her first undergraduate student,” Momin recalls. “She took me under her wing and taught me everything.”

Consequently, Momin expects that the Ph.D. students in her group will mentor undergraduates for at least one semester, and will likewise mentor undergraduates herself. In addition to conducting research, Momin will also co-teach BE 3100: Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis, and Design Laboratory II this spring; CBE 5640: Drug Delivery Systems: Targeted Therapeutics and Translational Medicine this fall; and design a course on protein drug design to be offered in the 2025-26 academic year.

As an educator, Momin’s philosophy is informed by her experience as a daughter of immigrants who arrived in the United States with little to their name. Momin still wears the lanyard she received in 2013 as an intern at the California campus of Sandia National Laboratories: “Inclusion is a conscious choice,” the lanyard reads. “I’ve kept it since then because it really does speak to me,” Momin says. “It’s the center of my mentorship vision, too.”

To learn more about Noor Momin and her research, please visit the Momin Lab’s website. The Momin Lab is currently recruiting undergraduates for summer 2024.