At a Glance
- Angiex utilized the ISS National Laboratory to test a novel cancer therapy that targets both tumor cells and the endothelial cells of tumor blood vessels.
- Space is a totally new research environment and a fascinating place to do science, and conducting research on the ISS National Laboratory is a rich opportunity.
- Working with the ISS National Laboratory provides business advantages to entrepreneurs, such as opening the door to new connections, increasing company visibility, and adding marketing value.
- Companies interested in doing science in space should work closely with those experienced in spaceflight research to gain a realistic understanding of what can be accomplished.
Paul Jaminet is founder and CEO of Angiex, Inc., a biotherapeutics startup based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Angiex was awarded a MassChallenge “Technology in Space Prize” from the ISS National Laboratory and Boeing in 2016. At the 2019 ISS Research and Development Conference, Jaminet was a panelist in the session “Accelerating Startups in Space,” which discussed how the ISS National Laboratory is serving as a business accelerator in space.
(Photo courtesy of Angiex)
Doing spaceflight research is a lot like being a pioneer in the wild West: it’s exciting, it’s adventurous, and it’s challenging. In space, you’re dealing with a totally new environment, novel equipment, and even different biology.
In July of 2018, Angiex launched an experiment to the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory to test our highly selective cancer therapy that targets both tumor cells and the endothelial cells of tumor blood vessels. Our project was supported by a MassChallenge “Technology in Space Prize,” awarded by the ISS National Laboratory and Boeing.
Thanks to its dual mechanisms of action against both tumor cells and tumor blood vessels, Angiex’s drug is highly effective at regressing tumors—we have never found a tumor in mice that we don’t regress in one dose. Moreover, the drug is well tolerated in mice, rats, and monkeys at a dose six-fold higher than the efficacious dose. But investors and doctors are naturally concerned about treating patients with a drug designed to kill the cells of blood vessels. People who don’t die of cancer commonly die of cardiovascular disease, and it is easy to imagine that treating patients with a drug that is toxic to the cells of blood vessels might aggravate cardiovascular disease risk.
To evaluate and allay such concerns, Angiex is eager to evaluate our drug in models relevant to normal blood vessels. That’s where the ISS National Laboratory came in. Previous studies on the ISS reported that endothelial cells cultured in microgravity behave rather like the endothelial cells of normal blood vessels, for example, they avoid movement and proliferation.
On Earth, there is no good cell culture model for normal vascular endothelium. We wondered: Might endothelial cells in space serve as such a model? If so, then studying the toxicity of our therapy on endothelial cells in space might help alleviate toxicity concerns.
Through our ISS experiment, we were able to replicate previous results and confirm that endothelial cells in space were indeed less likely to move or proliferate. Moreover, they were resistant to our therapy at doses that destroyed nearly all the cells in ground controls. However, after extended exposure to microgravity, we noticed that the spaceflight cells began to change and display different morphology and behavior. Furthermore, the cells maintained these differences back on the ground, suggesting that microgravity induced long-term epigenetic changes in the cells.
Although it is not entirely clear what this spaceflight model resembles—further research is needed to understand to what degree the model mimics normal vasculature or whether it may instead mimic a pathology of some sort—the science is exciting, and our project generated interesting leads we hope to explore further. Indeed, the biology we uncovered will be important in understanding the health effects of spaceflight.
We also discovered several unexpected business advantages to doing research on the ISS National Laboratory. Our experience opened the door to new connections with investors, business partners, and scientists. Marketing videos, news stories, and astronaut tweets and Facebook messages generated great visibility for our company. People are fascinated by space, and investors were intrigued by our space-based research. As entrepreneurs, anything that helps us share our story is valuable.
For companies considering research in space, working with experienced spaceflight researchers such as the ISS National Laboratory, Boeing, and our partners at BioServe Space Technologies is crucial. These partners can help novice spaceflight researchers gain a realistic understanding of what can be accomplished and what it is reasonable to attempt. Determining an appropriate budget for space-based research also requires experience that the ISS National Laboratory and Boeing can provide.
Like the wild West, space is a new and exciting frontier: Entrepreneurs can discover new vistas, maybe spark a gold rush, or possibly return home with a few arrows in the back. It may be prudent to expect the unexpected. One thing is for sure, the ISS is a unique and fascinating place to do science, and you’ll end up with some truly amazing stories to tell.