Pitt | Swanson Engineering

The Department of Bioengineering combines hands-on experience with the solid fundamentals that students need to advance themselves in research, medicine, and industry. The Department has a long-standing and unique relationship with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and other academic departments at the University of Pittsburgh as well as neighboring Carnegie Mellon University. Our faculty are shared with these organizations, offering our graduate and undergraduate students access to state-of-the-art facilities and a wide array of research opportunities. We currently have 187 graduate students who are advised by some 100 different faculty advisers, pursuing graduate research across 17 Departments and five Schools. Our undergraduate class-size of approximately 50 students per year ensures close student-faculty interactions in the classroom and the laboratory.

The main engineering building is located next to the Medical Center in Oakland, an elegant university neighborhood with museums, parks, and great restaurants. Beautiful new facilities have also been built, a short shuttle ride from the main campus, along the Monongahela River, replacing the steel mills that once were there. Our department is growing rapidly, both in numbers of students and faculty, and in the funding and diversity of our research. The Pittsburgh bioengineering community is a vibrant and stimulating alliance of diverse components for which our department forms an essential and central connection.


Swanson School Student Startups Forge Ahead

Bioengineering, Civil & Environmental, Student Profiles

PITTSBURGH (November 12, 2019) … Engineering students seek to innovate and design solutions to solve unmet needs in society. Taking an idea from design to development can be a tricky process, but participating in a business incubator can provide a solid launch to successful startups. The University of Pittsburgh provides services to help cultivate students’ creativity, and now, they have announced the Forge - a student startup incubator. The Forge is run by the Innovation Institute’s Big Idea Center, an on-campus student entrepreneurship hub that offers acceleration, incubation, mentoring, networking, competitions, and events to help students progress their innovations. The incubator will provide up to two years of support as the student groups solidify business plans and build beta versions or prototypes of their products and services. According to the Innovation Institute, it is open to students of all levels – freshman to postdoc – across every school at the University, as well as recent graduates who have completed previously required programming and competitions through the Big Idea Center. “We are excited to add a capstone to our continuum of programming and services to help Pitt student innovators bring their big ideas to life and launch them into the world,” said Babs Carryer, director of the Big Idea Center. Three Swanson School of Engineering student teams were selected for the first Forge cohort. Posture Protect A project that started in the Swanson School’s Art of Making course has navigated through several competitions and received awards from the Swanson School Design Expo, the Innovation Institute’s Startup Blitz, and the Randall Family Big Idea Competition. Tyler Bray and Jacob Meadows, both bioengineering seniors, lead their design team in developing the technology and business strategy for a product that helps people maintain their health in old age. Their initial target market is physical therapists who see people with movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease. “Our mission is to help people to be more proactive and engaged in their own healthcare,” said Meadows. “We’ve learned more than we could’ve imagined in this process about business, design, teamwork, and even ourselves. Posture Protect is excited to continue our human-centered, data-driven approach to build impactful and accessible health technology products for people who need them the most.” Heart I/O This project is a digital diagnostics startup led by bioengineering graduate students Utkars Jain and Adam Butchy. Their “smarter cardiac triage” technology uses artificial intelligence to detect problems with a patient’s heart more quickly and accurately at a fraction of the cost of current technology. “ECGs are one of the first tests that patients reporting with chest pain receive, and I thought that if I could equip ECGs with the computational power of artificial intelligence, I could improve the accuracy of diagnoses,” said Jain. In 2019, the Heart I/O team was a prize winner in the Randall Family Big Idea Competition and also participated in the prestigious Rice Business Plan Competition. Trek Biology and chemical engineering major Emily Siegel won the 2019 Randall Family Big Idea grand prize with a biodegradable chewing gum for on-the-go toothbrushing. According to a story from PittWire, Siegel envisions that this product not only will benefit busy millennials, but also will appeal to travelers, members of the military and people in places where clean water is difficult to come by. In addition to the $25,000 grand prize from the Big Idea Competition, Trek also received a $1,500 award from the Big Idea Blitz. Click here to learn more about the Forge and all nine of the selected teams. ###


Are You Comfortable?

Bioengineering, Diversity

PITTSBURGH (October 31, 2019) … Steven Abramowitch, associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh, received the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) 2019 Diversity Lecture Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to improving gender and racial diversity in biomedical engineering. His lecture, presented during the annual meeting on October 17 at the BMES annual conference, asked the audience to consider, “Are you comfortable?” For Abramowitch, his comfort was with the path that altered his research and career, as well as his advocacy for diversity programs in engineering. Abramowitch attended graduate school at Pitt and performed ligament research in the Musculoskeletal Research Center under the direction of Savio L-Y. Woo, Distinguished Professor of Bioengineering. A natural continuation would have been a career in sports medicine, but as he learned more about women’s health and the complications associated pelvic floor disorders, he was drawn to research in that area. “Pelvic floor disorders - such as pelvic organ prolapse - result from a weakening of the muscles and tissues that help support the pelvic organs and cause them to push against the vagina, creating a ‘bulge’ that can extend outside of the body,” said Abramowitch. “These disorders can make everyday tasks more difficult and significantly affect a woman’s quality of life.” Though Abramowitch was encouraged by some of his peers to pursue a “cooler” career in sports medicine, where there was ample funding, he decided not to take the easy route. With support from the then-department chair and Distinguished Professor of Bioengineering, Harvey Borovetz, he got out of his comfort zone and began working with Pamela Moalli, professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Pitt and pelvic reconstructive surgeon at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital. Together they now co-direct the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Female Pelvic Health. “Nearly one-quarter of women suffer from pelvic floor disorders, with most stemming from injuries during childbirth, and yet we don’t hear about these injuries that women sustain everyday,” continued Abramowitch. “These are not just quality of life issues - they are a quality of family issue.” In addition to his career in women’s health, Abramowitch has contributed to the Swanson School of Engineering’s diversity initiatives with programs such as PITT STRIVE, the Global Engineering Preparedness Scholarship (GEPS), Engineering Design for Social Change: South Africa, and CampBioE. Through these programs, he has helped to create a culture of diversity and inclusion and has worked to better prepare engineering students for a global marketplace. “Once again, some of my peers tried to dissuade me from participating in these programs, suggesting that it would be good for the school, but not for my career or even that I should not get caught up in race relations in Pittsburgh,” said Abramowitch. “But with continued support from Dr. Borovetz, my current department chair Sanjeev Shroff, and our Associate Dean for Diversity Affairs Sylvanus Wosu, I was able to take on these roles and help students get out of their own comfort zone.” Since 2008, Abramowitch has served as director of CampBioE, an immersive summer camp for middle and high school students that implemented a campaign in 2014 to focus on being an affordable resource for underrepresented minorities (URM) and students from underserved school districts. The program trains undergraduate students as senior counselors that provide “near-peer” mentorship for the campers and has, in turn, created a diverse community that makes STEM education more fun and less intimidating. Ashanti Anderson, a 2019 high school participant, said, “CampBioE has given me the experience of working with students of different ethnicities and cultures and allowed me to learn how to connect with them.” A sense of community is an important aspect of Abramowitch’s diversity efforts in the Swanson School. In 2015, he established an annual PITT STRIVE retreat that brings together faculty mentors and PhD mentees to improve professional and personal bonds, encourage effective communication, and help identify challenges that both parties face. “We are trying to create community between faculty and students,” he said. “We encourage them to discuss the difficult things and try to make them uncomfortable so that they can have these important conversations and break these boundaries. We want the faculty and students to be committed to each other’s success.” Abramowitch’s confidence in not taking the well-paved and comfortable path has helped shape his career and make a significant impact in the Swanson School. “Being uncomfortable, I realized, is not such a bad thing,” said Abramowitch. “Connecting with individuals who have a different background or worldview can help broaden your perspective and, for me, has ultimately provided a more fulfilling career.” Since starting PITT STRIVE, the Swanson School has surpassed historic levels of URM enrollment in the PhD program; through the study abroad programs, Abramowitch has helped undergraduate students see the impact of engineering through the lens of another culture; and with CampBioE, he has educated more than 1000 middle and high school students, with more than 40 percent participation from URMs and low-income students since the diversity campaign in 2014. Abramowitch’s impact has not only been acknowledged by BMES - he is also the only two-time recipient of the Swanson School’s Diversity Award, in 2011 and 2014. “What sets Dr. Abramowitch apart is that his work in this area is not defined by a singular activity or initiative,” said Dr. Borovetz. “Instead, Dr. Abramowitch’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is integrated into who he is as a person.” ###


Pitt and CMU researchers developing device to hear how neurons communicate


PITTSBURGH (October 29, 2019) … The brain is a complex organ full of neurons that work together to help us move, feel, think, and more. A multidisciplinary group from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University is working to expand the amount of information researchers can receive from a neural interface device and received two grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for their collaborative effort. The team, headed by Maysam Chamanzar at Carnegie Mellon, plans to develop an all-in-one implantable device that can simultaneously record neural activity, identify the cell type, and determine cell function through chemical stimulation. More information about these cells may help researchers determine how they communicate and help our bodies function. Xinyan Tracy Cui, professor of bioengineering in the Swanson School of Engineering, will lead the research at Pitt with a $293,138 award. She runs the Neural Tissue/Electrode Interface and Neural Tissue Engineering Lab, where they develop new engineering tools to study and clinically control the interface between tissue and implanted neural devices. “There are currently methods that researchers can use to identify cell types, mostly using imaging, but we wanted to create an innovation that combines imaging capability with electrical recording, all on a small probe,” said Cui. “Additionally, we’re incorporating the focal chemical stimulation technology that was developed in my lab to be able to perturb the neurons that we’re imaging at a very local level and identify the function of those neurons within the network.” This novel device will give researchers more information and allow them to avoid the more invasive methods used to determine cell type. “In the past, researchers had to open the brain to a large field of view for a microscope or use a sort of endoscopic device to determine cell type. Unfortunately, these methods cause a lot of damage and prevents you from continuously monitor neural activity over a long period of time,” said Cui. “Our device will not only be less invasive, but it will also be coupled with additional technology that will provide more dimensions of information on brain function.” Cui will collaborate with William Stauffer, assistant professor of neurobiology at Pitt, whose lab investigates the neurocomputational roles for different neuron types during learning and decision making. “Understanding how different types of neurons participate in, and contribute to, the ‘neural ensembles' that orchestrate behaviors is a principal goal of neuroscience,” said Stauffer. “This combined neural interface will permit recording of cell type-specific neural activity in awake behaving animals. Thus, this device will add a new dimension to behavioral neurophysiology experiments and move us a step closer to understanding how the brain generates behavior.” Maysam Chamanzar, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, is leading this collaborative project. Chamanzar’s lab focuses on designing and implementing next generation multimodal (Acousto-opto-electrical) neural interfaces to understand the neural basis of brain function and realize functional brain-machine interfaces. He is leading the design and implementation of the neural interface technology in this project. “In this project, we seek to develop a novel neural interface technology consisting of high density recording electrodes and an array of flexible optical waveguides for simultaneous electrical recording and optical imaging of neurons,” says Chamanzar. “The flexible polymer waveguides will be designed in the shape of a small, form-factor array to enable endoscopic optical imaging of the recording volume. Some of the electrodes will be modified to enable closed-loop localized chemical stimulation in synchrony with electrical stimulation and optical imaging.” The NSF has awarded grants totaling $17 million to 12 projects under its Integrative Strategies for Understanding Neural and Cognitive Systems (NCS) program. The awards contribute to NSF's investments in support of Understanding the Brain and the BRAIN Initiative, a coordinated research effort across federal agencies that seeks to accelerate the development of new neurotechnologies. “The complexities of brain and behavior pose fundamental questions in many areas of science and engineering, requiring expansive perspectives to find answers,” said NSF Program Director Kurt Thoroughman. “The NCS program makes possible innovative integration within and across disciplines, supporting innovative, integrative, boundary-crossing projects that – at their best – map out new research frontiers. NCS awards are bold and risky, and they transcend the perspectives and approaches typical of disciplinary research efforts.” ###


A “Shocking” New Way to Treat Infections

Bioengineering, Chemical & Petroleum, Diversity

PITTSBURGH (Oct. 21, 2019) — Titanium has many properties that make it a great choice for use in implants. Its low density, high stiffness, high biomechanical strength-to-weight ratio, and corrosion resistance have led to its use in several types of implants, from dental to joints. However, a persistent problem plagues metal-based implants: the surface is also a perfect home for microbes to accumulate, causing chronic infections and inflammation in the surrounding tissue. Consequently, five to 10 percent of dental implants fail and must be removed within 10-15 years to prevent infection in the blood and other organs. New research from the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering introduces a revolutionary treatment for these infections. The group, led by Tagbo Niepa, PhD, is utilizing electrochemical therapy (ECT) to enhance the ability of antibiotics to eradicate the microbes. “We live in a crisis with antibiotics: most of them are failing. Because of the drug- resistance that most microbes develop, antimicrobials stop working, especially with recurring infections,” says Dr. Niepa, author on the paper and assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the Swanson School, with secondary appointments in civil and environmental engineering and bioengineering. “With this technique, the current doesn’t discriminate as it damages the microbe cell membrane. It’s more likely that antibiotics will be more effective if the cells are simultaneously challenged by the permeabilizing effects of the currents. This would allow even drug-resistant cells to become susceptible to treatment and be eradicated.” The novel method passes a weak electrical current through the metal-based implant, damaging the attached microbe’s cell membrane but not harming the surrounding healthy tissue. This damage increases permeability, making the microbe more susceptible to antibiotics. Since most antibiotics specifically work on cells that are going to replicate, they do not work on dormant microbes, which is how infections can recur. The ECT causes electrochemical stress in all the cells to sensitize them, making them more susceptible to antibiotics. The researchers hope this technology will change how infections are treated. Researchers focused their research on Candida albicans (C. albicans), one of the most common and harmful fungal infections associated with dental implants. But while dental implants are one exciting application for this new technology, Niepa says it has other potential applications, such as in wound dressings. The paper, “Electrochemical Strategy for Eradicating Fluconazole-Tolerant Candida albicans using Implantable Titanium,” (DOI: 10.1021/acsami.9b09977) was published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces. It was coauthored by Eloise Eyo Parry-Nweye, Nna-Emeka Onukwugha, Sricharani Rao Balmuri, Jackie L. Shane, Dongyeop Kim, Hyun Koo and Tagbo Niepa.
Maggie Pavlick

Partha Roy receives $600K to study novel regulator of kidney cancer progression


PITTSBURGH (October 15, 2019) … According to the American Cancer Society, kidney cancer is among the top ten most common cancers in men and women, and clear cell renal cell carcinoma (ccRCC) - the most common subtype of tumor associated with kidney cancer - accounts for more than 75 percent of cases. Partha Roy, associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh, received a $603,807 award from the Department of Defense to identify novel regulators that can potentially target ccRCC progression. This project is in collaboration with Michael Lotze, professor of surgery and bioengineering, who is a co-investigator of the grant. “The five-year survival of patients with advanced ccRCC is still only 10 percent,” said Roy. “A distinguishing hallmark of ccRCC is the highly vascular (angiogenic) tumor microenvironment due to genetic loss of VHL, a major negative regulator of angiogenesis – the process in which a network of blood vessels is developed.” Through this network of blood vessels, oxygen and nutrients can be supplied to the tumor microenvironment, allowing it to grow and spread. “The tumor microenvironment is a collection of cells, molecules, and blood vessels that surround a tumor,” explained Roy, “and studying the close relationship and interactions between the tumor and its microenvironment may help researchers better understand the growth and development of cancer. “Given my lab’s research interests in angiogenesis and cancer, we would like to identify novel regulators of tumor blood vessel formation in the kidney that contribute to disease progression when dysregulated and therefore, be potentially targeted to slow down tumor progression.” Roy directs the Cell Migration Laboratory in the Swanson School of Engineering, where they have developed a better understanding of the role of actin-binding protein profilin1 (Pfn1) in physiological and pathological processes and want to examine its role in kidney cancer. “With clear evidence of a clinical association between high Pfn1 level and poor disease outcome in ccRCC, we plan to use this study to determine whether Pfn1 contributes to ccRCC progression and investigate whether Pfn1 inhibition by novel small molecules is an effective strategy to control the tumor microenvironment and slow down the progression of RCC.” The underlying hypothesis of this study is that Pfn1 stimulates tumor angiogenesis and limits the immune responses that otherwise would help slow cancer progression. In the first part of the study, the group will address whether Pfn1 dysregulation in vascular cells has an effect on the tumor microenvironment and ccRCC progression. They will also determine if Pfn1 expression has any correlation with the responsiveness of ccRCC patients to immunotherapy. In the second part of the study, they will determine if novel investigative compounds targeting Pfn1 function can be used to suppress tumor angiogenesis, improve immune response, and inhibit ccRCC progression. “The results of this study could establish Pfn1 as a novel regulator of ccRCC progression and a biomarker for predicting the therapeutic response of ccRCC patients,” said Roy. “This could pave the way for future development of improved classes of Pfn1 inhibitor as a possible novel therapeutic direction that might benefit patients who are resistant to standard VEGF-targeted anti-angiogenic therapy.” ###

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