Boston biotech gets NASA grant to test in-space manufacturing

Boston biotech gets NASA grant to test in-space manufacturing

Boston biotech gets NASA grant to test in-space manufacturing

For self-described “space nerds” like Mari Anne Snow and Yupeng Chen, being approached by NASA to fund an in-space manufacturing project of their company’s technology was a thrilling moment.

“You can imagine, every day we pinch ourselves and go, is this really happening?” Snow said.

Snow and Chen, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at University of Connecticut, co-founded Eascra Biotech one year ago to commercialize its unique nanomaterials. This week, the company announced that it would receive $1.8 million in grants from NASA over the next two years to test its manufacturing processes in space.

Eascra was one of eight groups selected to receive a total of $21 million in grants from NASA. Snow said this is part of NASA’s broader mission to advance in-space manufacturing capabilities.

“NASA is undergoing a really interesting, very aspirational moment in time where they’re working with private partners to develop a robust space economy,” Snow said. “They’re putting billions of dollars into this.”

Eascra is developing Janus base nanomaterials (JBNs), which Chen created and named after the two-faced Roman god. These particles can be formed into tubes, Snow said, and filled with other materials such as mRNA, a therapy or a vaccine, and then injected into a patient. The company is also exploring how the particles can be constructed into products to be used for cartilage repair.

The startup will test the manufacturing processes for both of these use cases on an upcoming space mission.

“It’s so small and it’s so versatile that we can inject it into really hard to get to places (such as) cartilage. We’ve actually done lots of studies in the lab related to regrowing cartilage in different parts of the body,” Snow said. “We’ve also successfully penetrated the blood brain barrier. So that has implications for neurological conditions in the future.”

Snow said that during the manufacturing process on Earth, gravity can cause some inconsistencies in the very tiny nanomaterials they produce. The company’s hypothesis is that working in space will produce a more uniform result.

 “We’re already going through the process of improving it in order to commercialize it. And we think making it in a low-gravity orbit situation where there’s no gravity force impacting the assembly of our technology…will accelerate our ability to really come up with something that is even more effective,” Snow said.

Eascra’s first mission will be in May 2023 with private space company Axiom Space. Axiom will send a team of astronauts to the International Space Station to conduct tests for two weeks on Eascra’s technology. Axiom made headlines earlier this year when it announced a deal to build a movie studio attached to the International Space Station for an upcoming Tom Cruise film.

Following this May expedition, Eascra will have two more space missions with NASA teams. The dates have not yet been determined, Snow said.

In the meantime, Snow said this gives the company some time to speak with the FDA about an approval process for commercializing a product that was manufactured in space. Snow said this is “new territory for everybody.”

“We’re going to be very proactive and having conversations with the FDA so that we can essentially be part of a very small, select group of folks who are going to be writing the standards for how this environment works,” Snow said.

Eascra doesn’t plan on mass producing products in space anytime soon. Snow said it isn’t commercially practical. But, if space proves to be a beneficial environment for manufacturing its nanomaterials, Snow said they could replicate some of those conditions on Earth.

“I think strategically, it’s going to help advance us by giving us access to a unique environment that not many people have access to,” Snow said.

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