Noor Momin harnesses the immune system to treat heart disease

The Stephenson Foundation Term Assistant Professor of Innovation and her lab members work to engineer nanoparticles as medicinal vehicles to fit directly into a single cell.

While growing up, Noor Momin, who joined the Department of Bioengineering at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science in January as the Stephenson Foundation Term Assistant Professor of Innovation, imagined becoming a physician. Becoming a doctor seemed like a tangible way for someone interested in science to make a difference. Not until college did she realize the impact she could have as a bioengineer instead.

Noor Momin.
Noor Momin, Stephenson Foundation Term Assistant Professor of Innovation. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Engineering Today)

“I was taping microscope slides together,” Momin recalls of her initial experience as an undergraduate researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. “I didn’t even know what a Ph.D. was.”

It wasn’t until co-authoring her first paper, which explores how lipids, the water-repelling molecules that make up cell membranes (and also fats and oils), can switch between more fluid and less fluid arrangements, that Momin understood the degree to which bioengineering can influence medicine. “Someone could potentially use that paper for drug design,” Momin says.

As Momin sees it, the conventional wisdom of treating the heart like a mechanical pump, whose pipes can be replaced or whose throughput can be treated to prevent clogging in the first place, overshadows the immune system’s critical role in the development of heart disease.

When plaques build up in blood vessels, for instance, monocytes, a type of white blood cell that normally protects the body from pathogens, can lodge in the plaque, causing inflammation that may eventually lead to the plaque’s rupture.

One way Momin proposes to address this sort of problem is through the creation of novel antibodies, the Y-shaped proteins that our immune systems use to tackle invaders, binding them tightly like linebackers wrapping up their opponents.

In collaboration with the lab of Michael J. Mitchell, associate professor in bioengineering, Momin is already developing a new class of nanoparticles, a medicinal vehicle so small that thousands of them could fit into a single human cell. “We’re trying to really hone their delivery,” Momin says, “using my group’s protein-engineering expertise to decorate them with antibodies to direct them.”

This summer, Momin’s lab will be among the first to move into new spaces in One uCity Square, which will bring together researchers from Penn Engineering and Penn Medicine.

This story is by Ian Scheffler. Read more at Penn Engineering Today.