StelSys set to score a first in space

Local company's tests on cells are to be first on new space station

May 30, 2002|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

For more than a year, StelSys LLC of Baltimore County has mimicked the effects of space in an earthly machine, developing techniques that could one day assist people with liver failure and other ailments.

Today, it is scheduled to launch an experiment aboard the space shuttle Endeavour that will allow it to compare the results with those achieved using the gold standard - space itself.

The relatively simple experiment, to be conducted aboard the International Space Station, is one result of a longtime NASA effort to encourage commercial use of space.

But NASA says StelSys, a five-employee operation on the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is the first commercial company to conduct a space-station experiment looking at the impacts of space on cell biology.

"This is actually the first step into the cellular biotechnology arena," said Neal R. Pellis, chief of the Biological Systems Office at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "They're using microgravity as a tool to determine what might be candidates for commercial development. That's a good way to use space."

StelSys is using a technology licensed from NASA to develop a number of products, including a liver-assist device. The idea is that patients suffering liver failure could be "plugged" into it, much as patients suffering from kidney failure are hooked up to dialysis machines. The device would effectively serve as a liver outside the body.

The NASA technology is a machine called a microgravity bioreactor. The atmosphere inside the machine is akin to space, where some cells continue to function much longer than they do on Earth.

StelSys has refined it to keep liver cells alive for periods of far longer than a week, said H. Fisk Johnson, the lead StelSys investor and chairman of S.C. Johnson & Son Inc., best known for Johnson Wax.

Without the machine, he said, the cells likely would die in less than a day.

StelSys, formed from the words stellar and system, is a joint venture between Johnson's Fisk Ventures of Racine, Wis., and In Vitro Technologies Inc., a Baltimore County company that tests drugs "in the dish" for some of the country's major pharmaceutical companies.

"We think that the NASA bioreactor device offers significant advantages," StelSys President Paul M. Silber said. What StelSys wants to know from the space-station experiment is, "Is that as good as it gets? Should we invest more time and energy to optimize it?"

In the experiment, Johnson said, liver cells will be suspended in a liquid nutrient and frozen, then launched into space aboard Endeavour and transferred to the space station.

When they're ready, the astronauts will take the cells, thaw them and grow them in an incubator, adding medicines with known effects in the liver cells. The enzymes activated as the medicines are metabolized will be used to monitor or "mark" the activity within the cells.

After three days, the cells will be refrozen for their return to earth. The results will be compared with an identical, earthly experiment run at StelSys.

"We're really starting with a very basic experiment in space, testing how various metabolic pathways function in space vs. on the ground," Johnson said. "Hopefully, we'll do several more space-based experiments."

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