A NASA Bioreactor Simulates Microgravity To Bolster Medical Research
Putting the Spin in Spinoff
It was an unlikely moment of inspiration when engineers David Wolf and Ray Schwarz stopped by their lab around midday. Wolf and Schwarz were part of a team tasked with developing a new biotechnology, but that wasn’t the focus at the moment—the pair was rounding up colleagues interested in lunch.
Another engineer, Tinh Trinh, prompted Wolf to forget about food. Trinh was toying with an electric drill. He stuck the barrel of a syringe on the bit, which spun with a high-pitched whir when he squeezed the drill’s trigger.
As Wolf looked at Trinh’s syringe-capped drill, he realized he was seeing the solution to a difficult challenge his team was facing. They had been developing a cylindrical bioreactor for creating cultures of human kidney cells, which could be used to produce hormones that help treat anemia. But the researchers faced a catch-22: while the liquid growth media needed to move during the growth process so it wouldn’t stagnate, the motion of the fluid tended to damage cells in the bioreactor.
“It dawned on me that rotating the wall of the reactor would solve one of our fundamental fluid mechanical problems,” says Wolf. What he realized was that moving walls could in theory keep the liquid medium stimulated enough that cells growing in it would remain suspended without being damaged. Rather than growing on a fixed surface, the cells would experience a simulated microgravity environment like that found on the International Space Station.
Put To The Test
The three engineers skipped lunch and quickly built a prototype to test that night. When they returned in the morning, they found that the cells had grown so fast that they ran out of nutrients. Moreover, the bioreactor’s microgravity-like conditions produced realistic, 3D structures that mimicked the way human tissue is organized in the body—something not possible for cultures grown on fixed surfaces.
In 1990, Anderson and Schwarz licensed patents for the rotating wall bioreactor technology and founded Synthecon Inc. in Houston, Texas, to commercialize the device. The duo saw the bioreactor not only as a powerful tool for growing healthy cell cultures but as an enabler for drug development techniques and new fields of medicine.
While Synthecon worked to demonstrate the potential of the rotating wall bioreactor, it received significant support from NASA to test the device’s value for tissue engineering, seeding an artificial matrix with cells that grow into implantable human tissues.
Powerful Tools for the Future
Synthecon’s NASA-developed Rotary Cell Culture Systems (RCCS) have become key tools for medical research.
Major pharmaceutical companies, Anderson explains, spend significant amounts of money on drug discovery and now want to test candidate compounds on RCCS-grown, 3D cells to get a more accurate sense of a drug’s potential effects.
Synthecon is also scaling up the technology for the production of recombinant proteins and antibodies. Recombinant proteins are expressed from cells containing genetically modified DNA; this is the method used to create human insulin and the hepatitis B vaccine. The company is working with researchers on recombinant protein studies that may yield drugs for diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
Another area in which Synthecon’s NASA technology promises to be a major contributor is regenerative medicine. Much has been made about the prospects of stem cells to treat conditions like cancer, diabetes, and sickle cell anemia, but a major obstacle is supply. Synthecon is currently engaged in studies using RCCS devices to multiply stem cells.
Wolf is proud to see a technology conceived within the government make a successful transfer to the private sector. “We have a very powerful set of tools to make the next set of innovations and contributions to future medical science,” he says.
Rotary Cell Culture System™ and RCCS™ are trademarks of Synthecon Inc.
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