Celebrating Innovation at Penn

By Gautami Das, Ph.D., Gautami @ vet.upenn.edu

Lots happening at the Penn Center for Innovation at the South Bank! Image Credit: Doreen Becker

Lots happening at the Penn Center for Innovation at the South Bank! Image Credit: Doreen Becker

Halloween afternoon witnessed an exciting event to celebrate the innovative works of our University at Penn’s South Bank, a hub built on 23 acres of land for innovative research and new business ventures. The event kicked off with “Pennovation Talks”- four brief, dynamic presentations by innovators at Penn who are shaping the future of science, technology, medicine and society.

In her talk “Adding touch feedback to robotic surgery,” Dr. Katherine Kuchenbecker, Associate Professor at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, showed how her team has given robots the sensation of touch to perform surgery. Surgeons using robot-guided surgery can now feel the patient’s organs they are operating on. Additionally, every contact the robot makes inside the body can be seen as a graphical representation. What’s more interesting is that these add on features only cost $300 and $10, respectively! Previously, surgeons could not feel the patient’s internal organs during a robotic operation, and were unable to get graphical feedback of the procedure. This new technique is already showing promise — interns who practiced with robots having these additional features performed better on the actual surgery the next day. When surveyed on whether they would like to have either of these features, all 83 surgeons and interns responded unequivocally: both add-ons!

Prof. A.T. Charlie Johnson, School of Arts and Sciences, shared his research on making an artificial “nose” using nano sensors in cancer detection. Since dogs have a 1,000-10,000 times higher sense of smell than humans, they are now being trained at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center to detect blood and other tissue samples of cancer patients. If they are capable of smelling out the specific compound in these cancer tissues, sensors will be developed to pick up the same odorant.

Prof. Karl Ulrich, Wharton School, talked on “How important is the raw idea in innovation?”. According to him if one wants to know whether an idea can be a success or not, a survey of as few as 4 potential consumers will give the same result as consulting 7 professionals. So consumers are better judges than the professionals!

Prof. John Trojanowski, Perelman School of Medicine, presented “Is Alzheimer’s Disease infection like mad cow disease?” where he addressed a key question in the propagation of tau aggregation. Tau protein forms aggregates in the brain of Alzheimer’s disease patients. His work showed that mice injected with synthetic preformed tau fibrils can produce neurofibrillary tangle-like inclusions and these can propagate from the site of injection to other connecting areas of the brain. In a way these synthetic tau fibrils are infectious in nature, spreading the tangles to unaffected regions of the brain (1).

Following the talks, President Amy Gutmann had a conversation with special guest Walter Isaacson, author of the new book “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution” (2).

In addition, an optional “Behind The Scenes South Bank Tour” was organized to let visitors have a look at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and Penn Dental Greenhouse. There were also demonstrations by KMel Robotics, a company founded in 2011 by two Penn graduates.

At the Penn Vet Working Dog Center there is a training program for puppies to develop them into well-rounded, social, driven dogs capable of excellent detection work viz. search and rescue, explosive-, narcotic-, diabetic-alert and cancer detection using positive training methods and incorporating real world scenarios. The visitors had the opportunity to see a 4 month and two 18 month old puppies showing their excellent detection skills. In the beginning all the puppies are trained for agility, obedience, fitness and conditioning. Depending on their likes and dislikes, these dogs are trained for specific jobs. All these dogs in the training center have a foster parent and go back home with them in the evening just like kids do. According to Executive Director Dr. Cindy Otto, who established this center, their success relies on teamwork.

In the Penn Dental Greenhouse, Prof. Henry Daniell of Penn Dental Medicine is growing and harvesting genetically engineered plants that produce therapeutic proteins. With a vision to provide medicine at a low cost to everyone, he has turned commonly consumed and easily grown lettuce leaves into drug delivery systems by packaging the powdered plant material into capsules that can be delivered orally. Cellulose in plants cannot be digested by enzymes produced in the human body but can be easily degraded by the gut microbes. This allows the therapeutic proteins produced by the lettuce leaves to reach the intestine where they can be absorbed. The capsules can be stored at room temperature for up to 3 years compared to many vaccines and drugs that need to be refrigerated and have a short shelf life. This reduces the cost to a considerable extent. Currently, plants in the greenhouse are producing drugs for diabetes (3,4), hemophilia-A (5), Alzheimer’s disease and retinopathy, and oral vaccines for polio, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, anthrax and plague. If all goes well, these promising drugs will go into clinical trials in two to three years.

Overall it was an afternoon that highlighted the wide array of innovative research and work that is being done within our Penn campus.





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