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.


Breathing Easier with a Better Tracheal Stent

Bioengineering, Chemical & Petroleum, MEMS

PITTSBURGH (Jan. 13, 2021) — Pediatric laryngotracheal stenosis (LTS), a narrowing of the airway in children, is a complex medical condition. While it can be something a child is born with or caused by injury, the condition can result in a life-threatening emergency if untreated. Treatment, however, is challenging. Depending on the severity, doctors will use a combination of endoscopic techniques, surgical repair, tracheostomy, or deployment of stents to hold the airway open and enable breathing. While stents are great at holding the airway open and simultaneously allowing the trachea to continue growing, they can move around, or cause damage when they’re eventually removed. New research published in Communications Biology and led by the University of Pittsburgh is poised to drastically improve the use of stents, demonstrating for the first time the successful use of a completely biodegradable magnesium-alloy tracheal stent that avoids some of these risks. “Using commercial non-biodegradable metal or silicone based tracheal stents has a risk of severe complications and doesn't achieve optimal clinical outcomes, even in adults,” said Prashant N. Kumta, Edward R. Weidlein Chair Professor of bioengineering at the Swanson School of Engineering. “Using advanced biomaterials could offer a less invasive, and more successful, treatment option.” In the study, the balloon-expandable ultra-high ductility (UHD) biodegradable magnesium stent was shown to perform better than current metallic non-biodegradable stents in use in both in lab testing and in rabbit models. The stent was shown to keep the airway open over time and have low degradation rates, displaying normal healing and no adverse problems. “Our results are very promising for the use of this novel biodegradable, high ductility metal stent, particularly for pediatric patients,” said Kumta, who also holds appointments in Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, and the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “We hope this new approach leads to new and improved treatments for patients with this complex condition as well as other tracheal obstruction conditions including tracheal cancer.” The paper, “In-vivo efficacy of biodegradable ultrahigh ductility Mg-Li-Zn alloy tracheal stents for pediatric airway obstruction,” (DOI: 10.1038/s42003-020-01400-7), was authored by the Swanson School’s Jingyao Wu, Abhijit Roy, Bouen Lee, Youngjae Chun, William R. Wagner, and Prashant N. Kumta; UPMC’s Leila Mady, Ali Mübin Aral, Toma Catalin, Humberto E. Trejo Bittar, and David Chi; and Feng Zheng and Ke Yang from The Institute of Metal Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Maggie Pavlick

“Bluetooth Bacteria” Wins a Gold Medal at iGEM 2020

Bioengineering, Chemical & Petroleum, Student Profiles

PITTSBURGH (January 12, 2021) … Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology have provided an invaluable connection to the workplace and the outside world as we remained sheltered at home in 2020. As part of a virtual research competition, a team of University of Pittsburgh undergraduates explored if a comparable equivalent to this ubiquitous technology could allow scientists to wirelessly manipulate cell behavior and control gene expression. The group pitched this idea for the 2020 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, an annual synthetic biology research competition in which teams from around the world design and carry out projects to solve an open research or societal problem. More than 250 teams participated in the organization’s first Virtual Giant Jamboree, and the Pitt undergraduate group received a gold medal for their project titled “Bluetooth Bacteria.” This year’s group was also one of three teams that were nominated for “Best Foundational Advance Project.”  This is the first time a Pitt iGEM team has been nominated for an award at the iGEM competition. The team included one Swanson School of Engineering student: Lia Franco, a chemical engineering junior. Other members included Sabrina Catalano, a senior molecular biology student; Dara Czernikowski, a senior biological sciences student; Victor So, a senior microbiology and English literature student; and Chenming (Angel) Zheng, a junior molecular biology student. “This sort of non-invasive technology could be used for timed drug release, synthetic organ and neuron stimulation, or even industrial applications,” Czernikowski said. “We first considered optogenetics, which uses light to manipulate cell behavior, but this strategy cannot target deep tissue without risky invasive methods so we needed to change our approach.” The team ultimately decided to attach magnetic nanoparticles to the surface of bacteria and stimulate them with an alternating magnetic field (AMF). The nanoparticles react to the AMF stimulation and dissipate heat, causing the temperature of the bacterium’s cytoplasm to rise. They then used a protein dimer to act as a “bio-switch” to control gene expression. “At lower temperatures, the protein dimers bind to a target DNA sequence and turn off gene expression, but at higher temperatures, heat causes the proteins to un-dimerize,” Catalano explained. “In its un-dimerized state, it can no longer inhibit gene expression, turning the system on. The change in temperature is controlled by the stimulation of magnetic nanoparticles with AMF, allowing wireless control of gene expression in bacteria.” The team hopes that there is therapeutic potential for their design but recognizes that they need to improve spatial control in order to match techniques like optogenetics. They would like to improve their design to use localized heating that could selectively target one bacterium or a specific region of the cytoplasm. They plan to continue development during the upcoming semester. “The iGEM competition is a unique experience where undergraduates take charge and develop and execute their own research idea, with close mentorship from a set of faculty mentors,” said W. Seth Childers, assistant professor of chemistry at Pitt and one of five faculty advisors for the Bluetooth Bacteria team. “This year’s team worked hard under the stress of a pandemic to bring together engineering and biology concepts to consider how one could wirelessly control a bacterium.” Another unique aspect of their project is the “Bluetooth Bacteria Podcast” – a casual and conversational podcast that seeks to educate the general population on topics and current developments in synthetic biology. “One of our main project goals was effective science communication,” said Catalano. “Because COVID-19 limited our ability to teach synthetic biology in person, we thought it would be fun to make a podcast as it is accessible to a wide audience. It gave us the opportunity to hear from iGEM teams all over the world, including France, London, and India.” The team published two episodes every week, and they are available on Apple Podcast or Spotify. The other faculty advisors include Alex Deiters, professor of chemistry; Jason Lohmueller, assistant professor of surgery and immunology; Jason Shoemaker, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering; and Sanjeev Shroff, Distinguished Professor and Gerald E. McGinnis Chair of Bioengineering. # # # The team was sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh, Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, Pitt’s Department of Bioengineering, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, Open Philanthropy, Integrated DNA Technologies, TWIST Bioscience, GenScript, Ginkgo Bioworks, Benchling, Revive & Restore, SnapGene, MathWorks, New England BioLabs Inc., and Promega. Photo caption: (from left) Sabrina Catalano, Dara Czernikowski, Lia Franco, Victor So, and Chenming (Angel) Zheng.


IE's Youngjae Chun Receives Second-Year Funding From Children's Heart Foundation For Congenital Heart Defect Research

Bioengineering, Industrial

NORTHBROOK, Ill. (December 22, 2020/PRNewswire) ... Youngjae Chun, associate professor of industrial engineering and bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, will receive second-year research funding as part of more than $735,000 from the The Children's Heart Foundation, the nation's leading organization dedicated to funding congenital heart defect (CHD) research. Chun is one of three researchers receiving second-year funding for research that, according to the Foundation, has made significant progress this year: Kristopher B. Deatrick, MD [University of Maryland] for continued work on Stem Cell Therapy for Post- Cardiopulmonary Bypass Low Cardiac Output Syndrome. Youngjae Chun, PhD [University of Pittsburgh] for research on A Self-Growing Percutaneous Heart Valve Frame to Treat Congenital Heart Disease. Allen Everett, MD [Johns Hopkins University] for ongoing study of the Role of Cyclohexanone Toxicity in Mediating Congenital Cardiac Surgical Outcomes. These research efforts will help experts learn more about the life-long care needs of individuals living with CHDs and how to continue to improve their overall quality of life. Announced in March 2020, Chun's research focuses on developing a new type of metallic frame for pediatric heart valves that could not only be placed by a minimally invasive catheter-based procedure but would also grow with the child, eliminating the need for follow-up surgeries. The Foundation will fund over in CHD research and scientific collaborations this year across four key initiatives: 1. independent research funded by the Foundation, 2. collaborative research with the American Heart Association through joint Congenital Heart Defect Research Awards, 3. funding the American Academy of Pediatrics' Pediatric Cardiology Research Fellowship Award, and 4. funding Cardiac Networks United (CNU), a national pediatric and congenital cardiovascular research network. The Children's Heart Foundation provides funding to Cardiac Networks United to improve outcomes for children with CHDs. One of CNU's current research efforts—the Chest Tube Project—is now being implemented at nearly 20 U.S. hospitals as researchers consider the optimal time for chest tube removal in young CHD patients. In addition, the Foundation funded the American Academy of Pediatrics' 2020 Pediatric Cardiology Research Fellowship Award given to David Staudt, MD, PhD, pediatric cardiology fellow at Stanford University. His research—Unraveling Molecular Modifiers of Hypertrophic and Restrictive Cardiomyopathy—is important because it begins to identify genetic mutations and underlying causes of hypertrophic and restrictive cardiomyopathies, which could lead to therapies that counteract or prevent CHDs. "Amidst uncertainty in 2020, our dedication to funding the most promising research has remained unchanged," said Barbara Newhouse, President & CEO of The Children's Heart Foundation. "The research we're funding is truly moving the needle." Every 15 minutes, a baby is born with a congenital heart defect, making CHDs America's most common birth defect. The Children's Heart Foundation's mission is to advance the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of CHDs by funding the most promising research. Since 1996, the Foundation has been a proven leader, funding nearly $14 million of CHD research and scientific collaborations. About The Children's Heart FoundationThe Children's Heart Foundation will mark its 25th anniversary in 2021. Its mission is to advance the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of congenital heart defects by funding the most promising research. For more information, visit www.childrensheartfoundation.org and follow us on Facebook, Instagram,  Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube.
Author: The Children's Heart Foundation (via PR Newswire)

New MEMS Associate Dean Appointments

All SSoE News, Bioengineering, MEMS, Nuclear

Professors Heng Ban and Anne Robertson were recently appointed to serve as Associate Deans in the Swanson School of Engineering. Dr. Ban will serve as the newly created Associate Dean of Strategic Initiatives, for which his duties will involve fostering collaboration between SSOE and industry and national labs. This is a vital task that assists SSOE and the University of Pittsburgh in remaining a leader in academia and a top-tier institution.  He takes on this role in addition to being the Interim Director for the Center for Energy and also the Director of the Stephen R. Tritch Nuclear Engineering Program. He is also leading a $5M DOE project on transient fuel performance partnering with several universities and major fuel vendors. Dr. Robertson will be the inaugural Associate Dean of Faculty Development, a role that complements her efforts in the Center for Faculty Excellence, which she established and directs. The Center aids in the development of junior faculty within the SSOE. This had assisted the promotions of numerous junior faculty and is a strong selling point for attracting new faculty hires. Her new role allows her to expand her focus to include Associate Professors and Appointment Stream faculty.  The Center has already seen much success via team faculty mentoring, peer-to-peer mentoring and professional-development workshops. Each junior faculty participating in the mentorship program is assigned a 4-5 senior faculty mentoring team. To date, there have been over 135 mentoring meetings with approximately 90 mentors drawn from across the SSOE, School of Medicine, Dieter School of Arts and Sciences and a number of departments at Carnegie Mellon University.  So far, 19 junior faculty have completed the mentorship program and all have been awarded tenure.  Another 26 faculty are currently in the program. This is 100% participation in a completely voluntary program. Professors Ban and Robertson join two other Associate Deans from the MEMS Department, Professors Minking Chyu and Sylvanus Wosu who are the Associate Deans of International Initiatives and Diversity, respectively.


Shave and a Haircut on Two Wheels

Bioengineering, Student Profiles

PITTSBURGH (Dec. 2, 2020) … When the COVID-19 quarantines began, one luxury people grew to miss was being pampered in a salon or barbershop. For many wheelchair users, however, salon hair care is often a challenge. The process can require an individual to be lifted out of their wheelchair into a salon chair, but this transfer can easily result in injury. A barber from Dubois, PA approached a team of engineers and rehabilitation experts from the University of Pittsburgh to develop a device that would help individuals with physical disabilities have a more tailored, comfortable, and safe experience at the salon. “If you are a wheelchair user, there is currently no portable device to facilitate the elevation or  tilting required to visit places like a barbershop or recreational facility,” said Anand Mhatre, assistant professor at Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. “We want to make these activities more accessible by creating a device that provides the functionality necessary to reduce and eliminate potential strain or injuries from a chair transfer.” Accessibility is often an overlooked issue – from web design to building design, people with disabilities often experience a myriad of daily challenges that able-bodied individuals take for granted. This device, dubbed TranquiLift, wants to provide a portable solution for activities that require elevation, and Pitt faculty and students leveraged common tools to make it work. “TranquiLift operates with a scissor lift and a secondary hydraulic platform to allow for a tilt. The user rolls onto a platform and is raised one or two feet using a manual hydraulic jack, much like what you would see in a car shop,” explained Cody Ruck, a bioengineering graduate student studying medical product engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering. “The tilt function allows hairdressers to wash and style from different angles. There are safety constraints that lock the chair into place, and there are wheels on the base for portability.” The first Tranquilift prototype is in development with the hope of being deployed at Baka’s Barbershop in the summer. From there, the team will evaluate its performance and make the necessary design revisions. By the end of the year, they hope to have a fully deployed device that can potentially be commercialized. The team includes bioengineering students Austin Minard, Cody Ruck, Thaarakh Suresh, and Shreya Telang under the guidance of Anand Mhatre and Kilichan Gurleyik, assistant professor of bioengineering at Pitt. “TranquiLift is the first product of its kind that will give clients the kind of therapeutic, self-care experience that that we have all come to appreciate at a barbershop or salon,” said Mhatre. “We’re starting in the barbershop and hope to extend the device to other settings.” # # #

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