The recent SpaceX Dragon delivery to the International Space Station included a synthetic “bone glue” made by a Lowell, Massachusetts-based startup with MIT roots.
Astronauts tested the material, called Tetranite, to determine how well it stimulates bone growth in space — and what lessons that may hold for its use back on Earth. Tests recently concluded, said Mike Brown, a student in MIT’s System Design and Management program and head of research and development for LaunchPad Medical, and the experiment was frozen and returned to Earth Jan. 13 on the Dragon capsule.
Tetranite is an injectable bioadhesive material that sticks to bone as well as metal, which allows for its use in orthopedic procedures such as joint replacements. It is also used in dental implants.
Though synthetic, Tetranite uses an amino acid similar to those found in bones. In a sense, Brown said, the body treats the material as a weakened bone and triggers a healing process.
“The average adult will completely turn over his or her skeletal cells once every seven years,” he said. “Your body is constantly in this remodeling process. Our material kicks it off where there’s a fracture, allowing cells to connect to the fracture, or to connect the metal implant to the bone.”
Founded in 2014 by MIT Sloan Executive MBA graduates Brian Hess and Grayson Allen, LaunchPad Medical received a grant the following year from Boeing and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space through the MassChallenge Startup Accelerator. The center and Boeing were interested in research that could be conducted aboard the International Space Station and would also have applications on Earth, Brown said.
The space station offers fertile testing ground for Tetranite. Astronauts lose about 2 percent of their bone mass per month while in space. However, in the absence of gravity, the cells that normally break down bone (osteoclasts) and create new bone (osteoblasts) don’t work as well. The same thing happens on Earth to adults with osteoporosis, a bone-weakening disease that affects 10 million Americans. (Another 30 million Americans have low bone density, or osteopenia, which increases the chances of getting osteoporosis.)
“Space provides the perfect environment to stimulate osteoporosis, which is something you can’t easily do on Earth,” Brown said. “Even if you induce osteoporosis in animals, their bones are denser than human bone, so it’s hard to model.”
The recently concluded experiment on the space station tested Tetranite against other commercially available bone grafting materials, using cultures of isolated osteoblast cells. NASA sees potential to use synthetic bone material to help astronauts recover from injuries or dental work during long missions, such as a voyage to Mars that could last up to 12 months. If this experiment goes well, Brown said the company plans to approach the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space about a second, longer test using the International Space Station rodent research facility.
LaunchPad Medical is based in the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center hosted at UMass-Lowell, which offers access to the university’s engineering, research, and medical facilities.