Sarah Keegan

Headquarters, Washington, DC

(Phone: 202/358-1902)

RELEASE: 00-143

NASA has entered into a groundbreaking agreement with the private
sector to explore a new frontier in biotechnology, focusing on
infectious disease research and developing a liver-assist device
for patients in need of transplant surgery.

Inspired by a news article on NASA’s efforts to commercialize
space activities, H. Fisk Johnson, Ph.D., president of Wisconsin-
based, private venture capital company Fisk Ventures, Inc. (FVI),
approached the Agency about a partnership which culminated in an
agreement to develop commercial medical products using NASA’s
Bioreactor technology.

“This is a great deal for the American people,” said NASA
Administrator Daniel S. Goldin. “It’s a symbol of the success that
can be achieved when government, private industry and academia
work together on the exploration of new frontiers for scientific,
technological and economic growth.”

Goldin and Johnson signed the agreement today in a ceremony at the
U.S. Capitol.

“Some of the best minds from NASA and our group collaborated over
three years, conducting an extensive analysis to determine what
was technically possible and the most likely to succeed in the
market,” Johnson explained. “This led us to NASA’s ability to
conduct research on cell cultures in the microgravity environment
of space, and its unique cell-culture technology on the ground,
that bridges the gap between what you can do in the traditional
lab and what you can do in a space-based lab.”

NASA invented the rotating Bioreactor as a way to study the impact
of microgravity on cellular growth both here on Earth and in
space. Traditional cell-growth research often produces single-
cell, pancake-like cultures. The Bioreactor works by 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

FVI and In Vitro Technologies, Inc. of Maryland have formed a
joint venture to turn this market-driven model into a scientific
and commercial success. The new venture — StelSys, based in
Baltimore, MD — will focus on commercializing microgravity
research specifically in areas related to biological systems.

“NASA’s Bioreactor technology is simply a tool box, and if you
give a tool box to the right people, they can build a house,” said
Goldin. “We believe we’ve put this tool box in the right hands of
the right people.

“The goal is revolutionary improvements in health care,” he
continued, “including:

  • Biomolecule Production: Mature liver cells make unique
    biomolecules for the body. By using the Bioreactor to simulate
    the natural conditions within the body, we could potentially
    harvest the biomolecules and use them as a jump start on the road
    to new drugs or other therapies. This could help us to screen
    drugs, test them, and get them to patients more quickly.

  • Natural Vitamin D3 Production: People on kidney dialysis need
    Vitamin D3, but it is expensive to make and difficult to purify.
    The Bioreactor will allow StelSys to mimic the natural D3
    production in kidney cells and assess whether D3 can be produced
    easily and inexpensively.

  • Culturing Infectious Diseases: Some pathogens that cause
    disease cannot be grown effectively using traditional cell
    culturing technology. Use of the Bioreactor could allow us to grow
    pathogens under conditions similar to those in the body. When
    scientists have the means to study these pathogens, they may be
    better able to develop and test treatments for them.

  • Liver assist device: Today, people with severe liver failure
    cannot survive without a transplant. The Bioreactor could lead to
    the development of a machine to bridge the wait time between
    diagnosis and transplant, giving hope to the 25,000 Americans who
    die from liver disease each year.”

    Johnson added, “Looking at this from both a scientific and
    business perspective, I am convinced there is great potential for
    microgravity and the Bioreactor to unleash new developments with
    significant social and commercial value.”

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