New Behrend faculty, labs expand MWRI-Erie partnership

Penn State Behrend student Madison Jones works in the college's Biomedical Translation Research Lab.

Madison Jones, a student at Penn State Behrend, works in the college's new Biomedical Translational Research Lab, a 2,200-square-foot research space that supports the Magee-Womens Research Institute in Erie.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

ERIE, Pa. — A new biomedical research lab at Penn State Behrend is accelerating the study of ERK, a cellular signaling pathway that is hyperactivated in 90% of all human cancers.

The 2,200-square-foot research facility includes an advanced microscopy lab, where Jeremiah Keyes, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, uses a scanning confocal microscope to produce high-resolution, 3D views of cancer cells. He’s looking for a way to inhibit the migration of cancer cells without fully disrupting the ERK pathway, which is essential to other life functions.

A wide-field microscope with a 100X magnifier provides a different view, allowing Keyes and the students on his research team to watch cells migrate in real time.

“These microscopes are at the cutting edge of live-cell microscopy,” Keyes said. “I don’t know of another undergraduate institution that has anything like them.”

His work in the lab supports Behrend’s partnership with Magee-Womens Research Institute in Erie. The $26 million women’s health initiative is bringing locally focused clinical medical research trials to the Erie region.

Two years after the launch of the initiative, the MWRI-Erie partnership, like the cancer cells Keyes is studying, is expanding.


‘A game-changer’

Behrend is the academic and translational research partner of MWRI-Erie. The college has opened two new labs that support the partnership: the biomedical lab, in the Advanced Manufacturing and Innovation Center, and an advanced molecular biology teaching lab in the Otto Behrend Science Building. Behrend students are contributing to research in both labs.

“These research spaces provide an opportunity for our students to be part of collaborative research teams,” said Ivor Knight, director of the Biomedical Translational Research Center at Behrend. “That’s a game-changer, in terms of career preparation. But the real impact will be felt outside the labs: The work we do here will directly contribute to new treatments and medical interventions that will improve the health of women in and beyond Erie.”

The labs were funded by a $1.1 million grant from Hamot Health Foundation and the Erie Community Foundation. In addition to microscopy, they provide the space and instrumentation needed for cell-culture research, molecular cloning, immunoblot gel imaging and nanoparticle tracking analysis.

The labs positioned Behrend to recruit two new faculty members with expertise in biomedical research. Keyes had worked as a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of California at San Diego. Ashley Russell, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, was at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She studies extracellular vesicles, which allow cells to communicate with one another.

“We needed this infrastructure to attract faculty members who do research on a level that is commensurate with the mission of MWRI,” Knight said.

“Clinical research has to be done in the context of both a clinical and an academic unit,” he said. “Our core capabilities in engineering and the sciences, our experience working with industry partners in applied research and technology translation, and the resources available to us through the larger Penn State research enterprise make Behrend the right fit for this.”

The college’s Open Lab model of learning, in which students and faculty members partner with businesses and community organizations to refine products and services and improve business processes, has broadened the MWRI-Erie partnership. A new round of seed grants is providing research funding for Behrend faculty members with expertise outside of the natural sciences to collaborate with MWRI clinical investigators:

  • Samy Madbouly, an assistant professor of engineering, is working with Dr. Amanda Artsen and Dr. Pamela Moalli to develop a new polymer mesh that can be implanted in women who suffer from stress urinary incontinence.
  • Melanie Hetzel-Riggin, professor of psychology, and Christopher Shelton, assistant professor of clinical psychology, have teamed with Dr. Megan Bradley to study the knowledge gap among women diagnosed with asymptomatic bacteriuria — the presence of bacteria in the urine of a patient who has no signs or symptoms of a urinary tract infection.


‘A big win for Behrend’

Beyond an initial $6 million grant from the Erie Community Foundation, including the lab funding, the MWRI-Erie funders — Magee-Womens Research Institute and Foundation, Penn State Behrend, the Hamot Health Foundation and UPMC — have each committed to investing a minimum of $5 million to expand medical research in Erie. Behrend already has raised $3.2 million, which has been matched by Penn State.

Federal funding could have even more impact. MWRI is the largest U.S. research institute devoted exclusively to the health of women and infants. Since 2007, the institute has led the nation in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for reproductive health research. MWRI expects to attract up to $50 million in new funding over the next 10 years.

Keyes is finalizing an application for a three-year NIH grant. If awarded, the grant would provide funding for additional staff in Behrend’s translational research lab, freeing Keyes and his team to focus on new collaborations.

“At that point, the MWRI research in Erie will snowball,” Knight said. “NIH funding is a big benchmark. It will put us in a position to fund fellowships and new faculty positions. At that point, what we’re doing here will really expand. It would be a big win for Behrend, and for the Erie region.”