NASA will sign an "unprecedented" agreement today that will allow a newly formed Baltimore County company to try to commercialize a space-agency invention that simulates lack of gravity in space.
The start-up hopes to develop techniques for treating liver failure and treatments for exotic infectious diseases.
The space agency will license Baltimore County-based StelSys to use the patents associated with the machine, known as a microgravity bioreactor. In return, StelSys will pay NASA undisclosed licensing fees, as well as royalty payments from any sales that result from the technology.
Financial terms of the deal were not released.
Paul Silber, the new company's chief executive officer, said the initial investment in the venture would be in the millions and could increase significantly in the future.
"We see this as a high-risk, high reward venture," Silber said yesterday, shortly before he left his Baltimore office for Washington, where he and NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin will be among those signing the licensing agreements today in a public ceremony at the U.S. Capitol.
StelSys, whose name is formed from the words "Stellar" and "System," is a joint venture between Fisk Ventures, of Racine, Wis., and In Vitro Technologies, a Baltimore County-based biotechnology company that tests drugs "in the dish" for some of the country's major pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. Such testing is used to screen products early in the development stage for potential adverse reactions.
Silber, In Vitro's chief executive officer, said the idea of pursuing a contract with National Aeronautics and Space Administration originated with Herbert Fisk Johnson of Fisk Ventures, a scientist with a doctorate in applied physics from Cornell University who is vice chairman of S. C. Johnson & Son Inc., the wax company.
The technology may prove important to understanding cell function, because it allows cells outside the body to behave more like they would inside it for longer periods.
For example, enzymes important to liver function will cease their work soon after liver cells are removed from the body and put in a culture. But inside the microgravity bioreactor, these cells can continue to function for much longer periods.
For that reason, one of the products StelSys will explore is a liver-assist device into which patients suffering from liver failure could be "plugged in," much like patients suffering from kidney failure can be hooked up to dialysis machines.
The idea, Silber said, would be to take liver cells from animals and use them in the device to help humans.
The technology also could be used to test treatments for infectious diseases that scientists previously have had difficulty growing in culture.
StelSys, which was formed in January and has eight employees, currently is subleasing office and lab space from In Vitro Technologies, a 55-employee company on the University of Maryland, Baltimore County campus.