Congratulations “Accelerating from Lab to Market Pre-Seed Grant” 2023 Awardees

We are pleased to announce the first three awardees for our Accelerating from Lab to Market Pre-Seed Grant program. Twenty-six competitive applications were submitted in response to the request for proposals and we thank all those members of the Penn faculty who submitted. We congratulate the following four awardees of pre-seed grants from this program:

Large Area Fabrication of Precise Self-Assembled Membranes
Chinedum Osuji

Eduardo D. Glandt Presidential Professor
Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE)
Penn Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Science

Abstract: This Polymeric materials that display simultaneously high selectivity and permeability in the transport of charged (e.g. ions in batteries and fuel cells) and uncharged (e.g. molecular contaminants in water) species represents a critical unmet need with implications in a diverse array of settings. The PI has developed and disclosed a conceptually new and versatile approach to creating such materials. The approach entails the use of molecular self-assembly to realize highly ordered chemically functionalized nanostructured polymers with transport limiting dimensions that can be tuned from 0.5-1.5 nm in steps as small as 0.1 nm. The ability to create such precisely sized and chemically- functionalized pores represents a potential breakthrough in membrane science. Potential applications range from water purification by low-pressure nanofiltration, to membranes for infrastructure-scale redox flow batteries and reverse-electrodialysis stacks for heat harvesting. This Accelerating from Lab to Market Pre-Seed project focuses on translating these recent developments from laboratory research to pilot-scale facilities that will enable commercial adoption. Specifically, it is focused on developing a pilot-scale process for fabricating these membranes using industrially-relevant roll-to-roll tools, and on characterizing the transport properties of large area (> 100 cm2) membranes as relevant for reverse electrodialysis stacks.

Precise labeling of protein scaffolds with fluorescent dyes for use in biomedical applications
Andrew Tsourkas

Co-Director, Center for Targeted Therapeutics and Translational Nanomedicine (CT3N)
Departments of Bioengineering (BE)
Penn Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Science

Abstract: In many biomedical applications, it is necessary to label antibodies or other protein-based targeting ligands with fluorescent dyes. This includes anything from routine laboratory assays, e.g. flow cytometry, immunofluorescence, and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISAs), to clinical applications such as fluorescence-guided surgery. In nearly every case, fluorescent dyes are attached randomly to the lysines or cysteines of the targeting antibody/protein. Unfortunately, this labeling approach has many shortcomings, such as a lack of control over which lysines or cysteines on the protein are labeled, creating highly heterogeneous products, potential interference of the fluorescent dye with antibody/protein binding, and a limitation in the number of dyes that can be attached before self-quenching and/or dye-induced aggregation leads to a loss of function. To overcome these shortcomings, we recently developed a protein scaffold that can be labeled with up to 10 fluorescent dyes with little to no self-quenching, by precisely controlling the location and orientation of the dyes. Here, we propose to optimize these “superbright” protein scaffolds and fuse them to photoreactive antibody-binding domains to enable the site-specific labeling of any off-the-shelf antibody. Moreover, we will also fuse these scaffolds to other targeting ligands for possible use in fluorescent-guided surgery.

Development of GMP eDHFR vector for clinical monitoring of cell therapies
Mark Anthony Sellmyer

Assistant Professor
Department of Radiology
Perelman School of Medicine

Abstract:  The development of gene and cell therapies like Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T cells has necessitated new technologies that can monitor the biodistribution and trafficking pattern of these therapies in human patients. Imaging is well suited to provide quantitative measurements of genetic medicines over time. Vellum Biosciences is a platform imaging company geared to fill this void, providing repeatable, robust, and sensitive measures of genetic medicine in situ with clear applications in new drug development, clinical research, and eventually, clinical practice. Vellum’s technology is based on positron emission tomography (PET) radiotracer derivatives of the synthetic antibiotic trimethoprim (TMP) and its protein target dihydrofolate reductase (eDHFR). When eDHFR is expressed via a genetically delivered medicine (e.g., mRNA, lentiviral, or adenoviral vectors), TMP radiotracers can be used to measure the expression of the protein products in any tissue within the body. Here, we propose the development of a clinical eDHFR viral vector that can be universally applied to different cellular therapies to monitor their biodistribution over time. In Aim 1, we evaluate the feasibility of a “stand-alone” imaging vector that can be applied to different cellular therapies. In Aim 2, we take the enabling steps to develop an IND-compliant eDHFR vector.

Next-Generation Liquid Biopsy Diagnostics with DNA Modifying Enzymes
Rahul M. Kohli

Associate Professor of Medicine (Infectious Diseases)
Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine
Perelman School of Medicine

Abstract:  The use of ‘liquid biopsies’ derived from patient blood has transformative potential, offering an opportunity to replace invasive methods for diagnosing and monitoring the progression of cancer. Circulating cell-free DNA (cfDNA) originates from DNA fragments released from healthy or diseases cells deep within the body. This cfDNA carries a molecular fingerprint, in the form of DNA modifications that control which genes are ‘on’ or ‘off’ in a given genome. For decades, the field has relied upon chemical methods to read these DNA modifications; however, such methods are destructive of DNA therefore greatly limiting diagnostic power for cfDNA analysis. To overcome this inherent limitation, our team has developed first- and best-in-class, non-destructive enzymatic methods for decoding the DNA modifications on small amounts of DNA. To date, given our primary academic goals, the methods have been used to execute pioneering biology. We have yet to avail the opportunity to explore samples with the most significant potential market impact. This grant aims to facilitate the critical transition needed to move our high-impact technology from the lab to the market through the vehicle of ACE Genomics Inc., a nascent start-up aimed at hardening enzymatic sequencing technology and moving it into the clinical diagnostic realm.

About the Accelerating from Lab to Market Pre-Seed Grant program

Penn makes significant commitments to academic research as one of its core missions, including investment in faculty research programs. In some disciplines, the path by which discovery makes an impact on society is through commercialization. Pre-seed grants are often the limiting step for new ideas to cross the “valley of death” between federal research funding and commercial success. Accelerating from Lab to Market Pre-Seed Grant program aims to help to bridge this gap.

Accelerating from Lab to Market pre-seed grants can be awarded to Penn faculty for promising inventions disclosed to Penn Center for Innovation (PCI) and Penn faculty with existing Penn spinout companies based on Penn-owned intellectual property. Funding levels will be available from $10,000 to $50,000 but could be larger if justified (up to $200k). One goal of the seed program is to leverage this Penn investment with external partners through matching funds.