Station research to study treatments for liver ailments
Posted: January 20, 2002

NASA has signed an agreement with StelSys LLC, Baltimore, to fly experiments on the International Space Station that will compare human liver-cell function in space with that on Earth. This research could aid in StelSys' development of treatment for people in need of liver transplants.

The research primarily will evaluate how human liver cells process medicine in space and will add to further ground-based research. Space Shuttle Discovery will deliver the research equipment on mission STS-111 scheduled for launch in May 2002.

"This will be an excellent start for commercial use of space technology," said Dr. Neal Pellis, Chief, Biological Systems Office, at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "We hope this is the first of many."

The agreement to fly experiments in space comes just one year after a groundbreaking licensing agreement between NASA and StelSys intended to explore a new frontier in biotechnology. The agreement focuses on the development of commercial medical products and services using NASA's Bioreactor technology in four areas, including development of a liver- assist device and a method for producing liver-cell biomolecules and metabolites.

"Space is the gold-standard environment for this cutting-edge cell research. Only in space, a true microgravity environment, will we be able to isolate and study each of the individual factors impacting cell function. This will allow us to refine and then optimize ground-based Bioreactor research," said Dr. Fisk Johnson, president of Wisconsin- based Fisk Ventures and co-founder of StelSys.

Utilizing the Bioreactor technology over the past year, StelSys scientists have discovered a unique procedure to accomplish long-term culturing of liver cells, which allows the cells to maintain liver-specific functions for at least a week, compared to only a day using traditional methods. In addition, they have developed a prototype of a novel "bioartificial" liver.

NASA invented the rotating Bioreactor as a way to study the impact of microgravity on cellular growth on Earth and in space. Traditional cell-growth research often produces single-cell, pancake-like cultures which quickly lose normal cell function. The Bioreactor works by gently spinning a fluid medium filled with cells. The spinning motion neutralizes most of gravity's effects, creating a near- weightless environment that allows cells to grow more freely, in a three-dimensional manner.

"StelSys is committed to research with real-world benefit to people. Our recent discoveries could lead to better, earlier drug-candidate screening, which would speed up drug development by pharmaceutical companies, and importantly, to a longer life for the 25,000 people every year waiting for a life-saving liver transplant," said Dr. Paul Silber, president of StelSys.

This research is being conducted under an agreement with NASA's Office of Biological and Physical Research, Washington. The office is responsible for basic and applied research using the low-gravity environment of space.

StelSys LLC is a biotechnology research company formed to develop and commercialize real-world applications of the NASA Bioreactor technology. The company maintains a core team of researchers with expertise in cell biology and chemical engineering.