A Biological Universe in a Drop of Blood

It is no surprise that a chemical engineer would study liquid flowing down a pipe. What may be unexpected is that Scott Diamond, Chair of Penn Engineering's Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, studies human blood, one of the most complicated fluids on the planet, as it flows through an essential pipe, the coronary artery. When things go well, blood flows smoothly. But dangerous clotting events can cause heart attacks and strokes, still the nation's deadliest killers.

Diamond uses liquid-handling robots, originally developed for the pharmaceutical industry, to run thousands of measurements on a small volume of an individual's blood. "Each person's blood has a unique personality, a phenotype, in the way it responds to all the many different stimuli present during a clotting event," Diamond says. His team uses these data sets to train computer models to predict the severity of a heart attack given one's blood profile. These computer simulations help identify the patient-specific benefits or risks of a particular drug therapy.

His fascination with human biology began during his undergraduate years at Cornell University in the mid-80s, just as the first recombinant protein, a blood clot dissolving enzyme called tPA, was being developed by Genentech. Intrigued by the body's own production of tPA, Diamond discovered during his Ph.D. work at Rice University that fluid mechanical forces could actually activate the tPA gene inside endothelial cells lining blood vessels.

Training for Diverse Careers

As faculty member and Chair, Diamond continues to approach chemical and biomolecular engineering as a discipline that synthesizes knowledge and demands collaboration. "The compelling aspect about chemical engineering is that our graduates can go on to work in energy, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, electronic materials, or any number of wide-ranging areas," says Diamond. "Our goal at Penn is to provide specialized curricula and concentrations so that by the time students graduate, they develop profound knowledge in their interest areas."

"Scott works with scientists from every corner of this campus," says Eduardo D. Glandt, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering. "He is equally fluent with biologists, clinicians and computer scientists." An elected Fellow of the Biomedical Engineering Society, Diamond has been honored with the George Heilmeier Award for Excellence in Faculty Research from Penn and the Allan P. Colburn award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. Diamond is the founding director of the Penn Center for Molecular Discovery, an NIH initiative established in 2005, and the director of the Penn Biotechnology Master's Program, one of the largest of its kind in the country.

"It's fascinating how the classic engineering tools of fluid mechanics, transport physics and reaction kinetics are now applied to today's problems," notes Diamond, the Arthur E. Humphrey Professor. "In a recent conver - sation with Dr. Humphrey, the founding Dean of our School, Arthur noted that his career was focused on running a single 1,000-liter fermenter. In a given week, our lab runs thousands of different one-microliter reactions simultaneously. Our capacity as scientists to generate novel data and insights has skyrocketed."

"The ability to manage high-dimensional data sets and apply computer skills for implementing creative ideas is something our undergraduates need to learn," says Diamond. "Our goal is to encourage students to get involved in discovery and research early on, and we're creating more opportunities to do that." For instance, students can grapple with high-dimensional data sets in a course he teaches on the chemical screening technologies that are used to find new drugs.

Breaking Through

On the research front, Diamond also develops micro - f luidic devices that recreate the body's f luid mechanics, which his lab uses to test small volumes of blood. Recently, his team made a fascinating discovery: when a sample was resistant to aspirin treatment, his team identified a previously unknown genetic mutation. The result was published in the prestigious journal Blood.

Tom Colace, a fifth-year Ph.D. student, has coauthored several studies with Diamond, including the Blood paper. "I have really enjoyed having him as an advisor, not just because he was working in an area that interested me but because he offered students the perfect balance of freedom to explore our own ideas and the accessibility to meet with and guide us as needed," Colace says.

Diamond lives with his wife Jessica, a scientific writer, and their teenage son and daughter in suburban Philadelphia. When he's not advising students, researching or teaching, Diamond enjoys downhill skiing, a hobby that allows him to enjoy the outdoors. "When you're skiing, you're exactly in the moment of getting down the slope. Pennsylvania has the mountains. We just need more winter."

View the article in Penn Engineering magazine "A Biological Universe in a Drop of Blood" by Elisa Ludwig.

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