A $1.86 million NASA contract has been awarded to a UConn Biomedical Engineering professor working with Eascra Biotech, and private Texas-based aerospace company, Axiom Space, to fabricate therapeutic biomaterials under low gravity conditions aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
Yupeng Chen, a UConn Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering engaged in pioneering tissue research, will lead the project in partnership with Eascra and Axiom. Chen and his team from UConn will work with astronauts aboard the ISS to conduct a proof-of-concept study involving the biomimetic fabrication of DNA-inspired Janus base multifunctional nanomaterials (JBNs). JBNs are used in therapeutic and regenerative treatments for arthritis, cancer, and neurological diseases.
Eascra is a UConn spin-off co-founded by Chen and Eascra CEO Mari Anne Snow. The work of the company focuses on building the next generation of therapeutic nanotechnologies. The collaboration of the three companies combines UConn’s biomedical engineering and research capability with Eascra’s expertise in the development of advanced biomaterials and project management, including venture capital fundraising and implementation of future project commercialization initiative associated with the project, and Axiom’s experience in spaceflight operations and development of space infrastructure.
“This extraordinary team gives us a unique opportunity to evaluate our technology and manufacturing processes,” said Snow. “The combined subject matter expertise and specialized insight will help us deliver out-of-this-world solutions, advancing treatment options for many chronic conditions and unmet medical needs. The ability to manufacture in low or no gravity allows us to ramp up the process and increases quality beyond anything currently available on earth.”
The project is one of eight to receive $21 million in grant funding from NASA. The UConn/Eascra team will use its $1.86 million to support two flights over two years. A third flight, scheduled next spring, will be supported by Axiom’s private astronaut mission.
“This project will establish a roadmap to commercialize the in-space manufacturing strategy for a family of DNA-inspired Janus base nanomaterials used for tissue regeneration,” said Chen. “Leveraging the benefits of microgravity in the fabrication process has the potential to deliver more orderly JBN products that achieve better structural integrity and therapeutic outcomes.”
Nanomaterials and JBNs
Nanomaterials are ultrafine particles of matter characterized by their tiny size, usually between 1 and 100 nanometers (nm) in diameter. A nanometer is roughly one millionth of a millimeter, approximately 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Materials engineered to such small scale can take on unique optical, magnetic, electrical and other properties with tremendous potential impact in the fields of electronics, medicine and beyond.
Named for the two-faced Roman god, Janus base nanomaterials (JBNs) have two or more distinct physical properties that allow different kinds of chemistry to occur on the same particle. The biomimetic or controlled self-assembly of DNA-inspired JBNs, makes them the perfect candidates for in-space production. These JBNs will be used as effective, safe, and stable delivery vehicles for RNA therapeutics, gene editing and vaccines, as well as first-in-kind cell-free, injectable scaffolds for regenerative medicine.
Eascra intends to introduce nanomaterials in three different product areas:
- JBNp™, a new delivery platform for mRNA therapeutics and gene editing that can successfully pass through “difficult-to-infiltrate” tissue barriers. JBNp™ is room-temperature stable.
- JBNm™ is a revolutionary cell-free injectable scaffold for use in orthopedic applications involving cartilage repair and regeneration.
- JBNm-Tissue Chip™ simulates knee joints and other tissues on a microchip for accelerated biomedical research and drug testing.
A Powerful Partner
Based in Houston, Texas, Axiom Space is guided by the vision of a thriving platform in space that benefits all humankind. As the leading provider of human spaceflight services and the developer of human-rated space infrastructure, Axiom currently operates end-to-end missions to the International Space Station (ISS) as it builds building its successor, Axiom Station, the first permanent commercial destination in low-Earth orbit. Axiom Station will allow Eascra and other companies like it to access in-space manufacturing capabilities for biomedical products with the potential to benefit life on Earth.
The Aerospace Corporation is tasked with providing technical and business expertise and analysis in support of NASA’s evaluation of In-Space Production Application (InSPA) proposals. The group will provide continued support during planning, preparation, and execution of the demonstrations on the International Space Station. The Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) helped inform NASA’s strategy and plans for enabling in-space manufacturing and developing a commercial low-Earth orbit economy.
Why In-Space Manufacturing Matters
Manufacturing in low or no gravity environments can lead to higher quality products with fewer defects. Microgravity creates more orderly structures and higher levels of homogeneity than possible with current terrestrial methods. This improved efficacy would open accelerated opportunities for more effective mRNA therapeutic delivery options and result in an advanced delivery system for a variety of therapeutic treatments and cartilage tissue repair and regeneration solutions. Eascra’s first target market is a new, advanced approach to osteoarthritis treatment and orthopedic tissue repair and regeneration.
For the ISS mission, Chen and his team will focus on their two most promising JBN applications – a Janus base nanopiece (JBNp™), a delivery vehicle for mRNA and gene editing that can be used to treat diseases or produce a vaccine with oncological and neurological applications; and a Janus base nano-matrix (JBNm™), a porous, injectable material or scaffold onto which cells can adhere and grow. In this case, the scaffold will be used to promote cell growth for tissue repair and the regeneration of cartilage.
The second and third phases of Chen’s project will focus on utilizing a robotic arm in the fabrication process and possibly conducting bio-manufacturing processes aboard Axiom’s commercial space station.
“This is a unique project specifically designed to promote the commercial applications of low-Earth orbit in the field of biomedical technologies that advance medical science and provide novel therapeutic solutions currently unavailable on earth,” says Chen. “I do think we will soon have a product. We are getting closer than any time before to achieving this goal.”
About Eascra Biotech
Boston-based Eascra Biotech is focused on the development of DNA-inspired Janus base nanostructures to create a family of safe, versatile, and temperature stable nanomaterials for biomedical applications, enhancing the therapeutic efficacy of drug treatments for a variety of chronic conditions and medical needs. Eascra’s novel family of Janus base nanomaterials provide highly effective solutions for:
- Temperature stable mRNA and gene editing delivery systems with minimal toxic side effects.
- Tissue engineering and regenerative medicine for orthopedic applications.
- Accelerated biomedical research and drug testing on simulated tissues-on-chips.
About UConn School of Engineering & Biomedical Engineering Department
UConn School of Engineering is a nationally-competitive research program with faculty and researchers who are well-known experts in their fields. The school has successfully built on its three pillars - to develop successful students, maintain research excellence, and contribute to economic output and development in the state of Connecticut – through investment in campus resources, a focus on entrepreneurial ventures, a strong connection with industry partners, and a drive to innovate.
As part of the School of Engineering, the UConn Biomedical Engineering Department (BME) seeks to provide students with the fundamental knowledge and skills needed to excel in the integration of science, engineering, and medicine to improve the quality of life and to become leaders in the field of biomedical engineering. BME courses build on a critical understanding of engineering, mathematics, chemistry, physics, and biology, and advance into integrated biomedical engineering formulated for the rapidly evolving and expanding nature of our discipline.
UConn BME educators, researchers, administrators, and staff deliver a unique, immersive experience that spans the School of Engineering in Storrs and UConn Health Center in Farmington and provides students with access to leading-edge engineering and clinical research. From 2019-2021, UConn BME faculty won $42M in extramural funding, including $17.6M in new grants in 2021 alone, 14 NIH R01 grants and six NSF CAREER awards.