Penn Medicine News Blog

Using the Penn High Performance Computing Cluster to Unravel the Spider’s Web

Golden Silk Orb Weaver L Church Flickr Creative CommonsPenn Medicine Academic Computing Services was recently formed through the consolidation of several of the largest groups on campus providing computing services to departments, centers and institutes. Its role is to ensure that data, informatics, computing infrastructure, and technical expertise is readily available to grease the wheels of science and clinical care at Penn Medicine. We will occasionally bring you stories of their expanded role. I recently spoke with Brian Wells, associate vice president of Health Technology and Academic Computing and Ben Voight, assistant professor of Pharmacology and Genetics, about an unusual application.

Uncovering the genomic architecture of spider silk genes wasn’t top of mind for Benjamin Voight, PhD, when he first came to Penn a few years ago. But he and postdoctoral researcher Paul Babb are now deep into sequencing the whole genomes of two spider species: a Golden Silk Orb Weaver and Darwin's Bark Spider.

The de novo assembly of the whole genome of these two species is “like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without the box-lid picture to guide us.” says Voight, assistant professor of Pharmacology and Genetics. And a substantial amount of computing power is needed to do it, so Voight consulted with Brian Wells, associate vice president of Health Technology and Academic Computing, on the building and design of the new High Power Computing Cluster (HPCC) for this project.

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More Photos from Around Penn Medicine

In late February, Penn Medicine’s Heart and Vascular Center joined forces with the City of Philadelphia to wrap up American Heart Month by offering free cardiovascular screenings for city employees. The screenings, which included blood pressure screenings, cardiac risk assessments, peripheral vascular screening and abdominal aortic aneurysm screens, are preventive  measures to detect early evidence of heart and blood vessel disease.

In addition to the screenings, Rosetta Lue, Chief Customer Service Officer and Deputy Managing Director for the City of Philadelphia, shared her personal story of overcoming a cardiovascular infection that led to heart failure — an experience which led her to become a heart health advocate.

Elsewhere at Penn Medicine, mid-March brought with it Patient Safety Awareness Week — which, at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, means a safety fair with presentations by units and departments from around the hospital, culminating in a loud and highly competitive game of Jeopardy among faculty and staff.

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Standing Up to Pancreatic Cancer is Tough—But Not Impossible

Cancer Researchers and Celebrities Come Together for a Stand Up to Cancer Event to Announce New “Dream Team”

“It can run, but it can’t hide.”

That’s the message Robert Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, the Hanna Wise Professor in Cancer Research in the Abramson Cancer Center (ACC) and the Perelman School of Medicine, had for the crowd when he took the podium at the Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C) event in San Diego announcing the new pancreatic cancer “Dream Team” he’ll co lead alongside Elizabeth M. Jaffee, MD, professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins University.  “It’s time to beat this thing,” he said.   

483333001Thanks to an $8 million grant from SU2C and the Lustgarten Foundation, the “Dream Team” may do just that. The group, which includes researchers from the ACC and institutions across the United States and England, will work together to develop new therapies to harness patients’ own immune cells to treat pancreatic cancer—one of the most promising avenues for cancer.

But despite advances in treating leukemia and melanoma with immunotherapy, such clinical efforts for pancreatic cancer lag behind.  “This is the type of funding that can make a huge difference,” Vonderheide said. “We believe the immune system ultimately has the power to cure pancreatic cancer. We’ve learned a lot about the power of the immune system in other tumor types… now it’s time for pancreatic cancer.”

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A Smile Makes A Big Difference

AmbassadorsEleanor Ball, who welcomes patients at the main entrance of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, greets everyone with a smile. “Most people are scared when they come in,” she said. “When they see a smile, it makes a big difference.”

A smile is just one component of how HUP's ambassadors or “Red Coats” make every patient’s experience a good one. “We want to exceed the expectations of our patients and their families,” said Mona Matson, associate director of Patient and Guest Relations & Reception. 

To help ensure that all patients and visitors who enter HUP or the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine receive the same welcoming experience, the ambassadors at the four information desks and the greeters at the front entrances of both facilities recently underwent service excellence training. The three-week training program included learning the AIDET (acknowledge, introduce, duration, explanation, thank) patient communication model, role playing and shadowing sessions.

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No Magic Number - Penn Medicine Researcher to Be Among Architects of New National Sleep Recommendations

Alarm_Clocks_20101105We’ve all heard it before…“sleep experts recommend you get 7 – 8 hours of sleep per night for optimal health.”

But is that true for everyone? The answer is there really is no magic number.

“For years, members of the sleep research and clinical community have been discussing the issue of sleep recommendations,” says Michael Grandner, PhD, instructor in Psychiatry and member of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology. “It’s not like with diet, where we can comfortably recommend a certain number of calories per day based on age and physical activity level. Sleep is a complex puzzle because so many factors play into how much an individual needs, including gender, age, and even your genetics. So a ‘one size, fits all’ block of time may not be the best approach.”

To help solve this puzzle, Dr. Grandner will take part in the first comprehensive review of sleep recommendations in a decade -- the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep Time Recommendations Expert Panel (STREP). The STREP initiative, just announced last month, will be comprised of a multidisciplinary team of experts in sleep and from other scientific fields to formulate updated recommendations for age-specific sleep needs.

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“Technology and Pearls” – The Dichotomy of Women and Medicine throughout History

In the 19th Century, rigorous work was thought to negatively affect female fertility.

It was also thought to create a masculine and angular appearance in women, thus stunting the development of femininity.

These are just a sample of some of the startling yet fascinating “facts” presented by ten distinguished speakers at the 2014 History of Women’s Health Conference held at Pennsylvania Hospital of Penn Medicine on April 2.

HWHC_2014_2Strike a pose! Presenters and guests of Pennsylvania Hospital’s 9th Annual History of Women’s Health Conference give us the “Renaissance Elbow.”  Originally created by portrait painters during the Renaissance and depicting men placing a fist on their hip and jutting out their elbow to make themselves appear impressive, the pose was resurrected during the American Revolutionary War period. Primarily used in portrait art, groups of siblings were characteristically shown with prized sons posed in front – elbows out – while daughters were relegated behind them, virtually scenery. This was shown in the presentation, “The Pregnant Revolution:  Women and Fertility in the New Nation” by Susan E. Clepp, PhD., professor Emerita of History, Temple University, shown here, fourth from the left. 

This was the hospital’s ninth annual History of Women’s Health conference. Free and open to the public, the Conference focuses on areas of women’s health from the 18th century to the present. It began as a part of Pennsylvania Hospital’s celebration of co-founder Benjamin Franklin’s tercentenary – what would have been his 300th birthday. Each year since, scholars from the humanities and health care professionals gather to discuss the past, present, and future state of women’s health at this lively forum co-sponsored by the Pennsylvania Hospital Historic Collections, the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Hospital Professional Staff.

“The typical audience for this conference is a mix of physician and nursing professionals, community members, history enthusiasts, and professionals in history and the humanities,” said Stacey Peeples, curator and lead archivist at Pennsylvania Hospital. “We host the conference each year to create a forum for open discussion of women’s health through a variety of perspectives – historical and modern – by taking an interdisciplinary approach. We celebrate the fact that Pennsylvania Hospital has always been a leader in women’s health, a leader in open discussions about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we might be going.”


Shown here from L to R are: Stacey C Peeples, curator-lead archivist, Wanda Ronner, MD, professor of Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology, Peter Gearhart, MD, clinical assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Pennsylvania Hospital, and conference keynote speaker Robert Aronowitz, MD, professor and chair, History and Sociology of Science, University Pennsylvania.

From women struggling to enter into the predominantly male field of medicine to the female medical research subject, women throughout history were misunderstood, misrepresented, and misaligned.  As  Dr. Carol-Ann Farkas described in her presentation at the conference (more about that later) even brilliant women who were trailblazers in their field were constantly evaluated and judged and if “praised” – it was with the equivalent impact of the proverbial “left-handed compliment.” If a female physician was reviewed (by males, of course) it could not be done without comment on how attractive, feminine, and graceful she also was. The message is clear. Historically, intellect and achievement, particularly in the field of medicine, were not imagined or accepted female attributes. If a pretty, smart, female physician was acknowledged, she was a novelty to be admired mainly for curiosity’s sake, not for her accomplishments.

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Penn Medicine at the 2014 Philadelphia Science Festival

PSF 2011 Carnival Dry icePenn Medicine will again play a starring role in the 4th annual Philadelphia Science Festival, a citywide collaboration showcasing science and technology every spring.

The Festival runs from April 25 – May 3, 10 days devoted to celebrating the region’s strengths in science and technology, bringing together more than 100 partners from academia to museums to restaurants. It will include an extensive line-up of programs and exhibitions designed to inspire the next generation of scientists and spark discussion among young and old. 

Take a look at who will be representing Penn Medicine at the 2014 Philadelphia Science Festival. Click on the links to each event to learn more. Watch this space for more about individual events and for coverage of the festival.

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Pocket-sized Medicine: Bringing Real-time Tests to Homebound Patients

IMG_9372Visits with doctors, nurse practitioners and physician's assistants are changing, thanks to emerging technology advances. When tagging along for a house call recently with one of our geriatricians, I was really impressed by all the types of tests and care that they can deliver from the comfort of a patient's living room.

Penn Geriatric's overarching House Calls program keeps watch over 220 home-bound elderly patients at a given time, and partners with Penn Home Care nurses to provide all levels of care, from a routine check in appointment after a hospitalization, to managing serious and complex acute illnesses all at home.

Thanks to innovations that have miniaturized medical devices, care providers on the go - from home care visits to busy outpatient practices - can get more and more real-time feedback at the patient's bedside.

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Twenty Years Later: How Breast Cancer Risk Genes are Changing Patient Care

In the mid-1990s, scientists for the first time were able to isolate and clone the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, mutations in which were thought to increase susceptibility to early onset breast and ovarian cancers. A new Perspective published last week in Science takes a look back at the last twenty years to show how the identification of these genes set in motion a firestorm of research aimed at exploring how genetic information can be used to create both standards of care and strategies for all patients at a high-risk of developing cancer. Much has been learned over the last twenty years and now, Penn Medicine’s Basser Research Center for BRCA - the first and only comprehensive BRCA-focused center of its kind – is at the forefront of the next generation of research about genetics and cancer risk, methods for risk reduction and prevention, and new cancer treatment therapies.

Autosomal dominant diseases, as in the case of BRCA mutations, means you only need to get the abnormal gene from one parent in order for you to be at risk of inheriting the disease. “Affected,” in the context of BRCA mutations, means a patient is “at risk.” It does not necessarily mean a patient has been diagnosed with cancer. 

BRCA: Then and Now

Information gleaned over the last twenty years combined with new details about non-BRCA1/2 genetic variations is arming physicians and researchers with the tools to begin to developing models that will provide personalized care plans for BRCA1/2 mutation carriers based on genetic changes. Two decades ago, studies confirmed the association between BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations and early-onset breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Since then, more than 1,800 distinct variants of BRCA1 and more than 2,000 of BRCA2 have been reported. Further studies revealed that not only are BRCA1/2 mutations hereditary, but some variations are also common among distinct populations. The best known example is in the Ashkenazi Jewish population, in which nearly three percent of individuals carry a mutated version of the gene. That means they have a 1 in 40 chance of carrying a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation -- a ten times greater probability than that of the non-Jewish population.  

“A woman’s risk of breast cancer is still very much tied to family history, but it’s not just about their mother or grandmother; it’s about their father and his family history, too, and the population groups an individual’s family belongs to,” said Katherine Nathanson, MD, associate professor of Medicine in the Division of Translational Medicine and Human Genetics, co-leader of the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at the Abramson Cancer Center, and a co-author on the new Perspective. “Twenty years of research has provided a lot more information about these risk factors which helps us to more effectively counsel patients about their own cancer risk and possible preventative strategies.”  

Today, BRCA1 mutation carriers are generally estimated to have a 57 percent chance of developing breast cancer and a 40 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer by age 70, whereas BRCA2 mutation carriers are estimated to have a 49 percent chance of breast cancer and an 18 percent chance of ovarian cancer.

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2014 Facts and Figures Shows Penn Medicine’s Expanding Footprint

Facts-cover-2014In the 2014 edition of Penn Medicine’s annual Facts and Figures report, readers can find numerous achievements in research, education, and patient care from the past year.

Highlights from this year’s text include Penn Medicine continuing as one of the nation’s top recipients of National Institutes of Health funding, the Perelman School of Medicine’s rank among the top five medical schools in the country by U.S. News and World Report for the 16thstraight year, and capital projects planned for the Penn Medicine campus. 

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