January 16, 2019

Tulane University Alumni Send Their Research to Space

Tulane University Alumni Send Their Research to Space

Tulane University PR department recently released exciting news. Elaine Horn-Ranney and Parastoo Khoshakhlagh, former Tulane biomedical engineering graduate students, came up with a great idea while working in a Tulane University lab several years ago, and as they say, if you are a Tulane student and have a great idea, there is no telling how far you can take it.  Their idea was for a gel-based patch to help repair damaged eardrums without surgery. Horn-Ranney and Khoshakhlagh were determined to take their idea as far as they could go but they never expected their idea to go as far as 240 miles above Earth to the International Space Station. It’s called Tympanogen, and Horn-Ranney, her husband Dr. Jesse Ranney, and Khoshakhlagh launched it in 2014. Initially, the gel patch was designed to repair chronic perforations in the tympanic membrane of the ear for which the only treatment currently for tears in the tympanic membrane is surgery, which is costly. Tympanogen, Inc. develops innovative ear, nose, and throat devices based on proprietary gel technology. The first product, Perf-Fix™, will transform traditional tympanoplasty procedures into a quick office visit.  Perf-Fix can be applied in an office setting within 10 minutes, without general anesthesia or margin freshening. This gel patch encourages regeneration of the full tympanic membrane structure at the same high success rates of traditional tympanoplasty. Tympanogen’s Perf-Fix gel delivers drugs to the wound site and forms a barrier that lets the body to heal around it.  “The ultimate goal is to develop a space-filling wound dressing that can deliver drugs directly to the wound site as opposed to a patient getting a lot of systemic antibiotics,” says Horn-Ranney. “Basically, all of the resources we needed on campus were available to us,” Horn-Ranney says. The company is still developing its original product for eardrum repair and hopes to test it in clinical trials within the next two years.

They never expected what happened next.  Horn-Ranney explains what happened after securing some funding for their research.

“So just having that little bit of money to do that initial study within the environment that we needed was everything. The company wouldn’t have happened without it.”Tympanogen worked with mentors at the A.B. Freeman School of Business and the New Orleans Bioinnovation Center to hit the nation’s business plan competition circuit. They won $84,000. They took top prize in the 2014 Tulane Business Model Competition, placed second at the International Business Model Competition and fifth in the Rice Business Plan Competition, scoring the NASA Earth/Space Human Health & Performance Innovation Cash Prize.  As winners of the NASA award, they were invited to one of the agency’s symposiums. “It was a very small gathering of scientists and astronauts. We were the only team who had won (NASA’s) award at Rice to ever attend this symposium,” Horn-Ranney says. “They were very appreciative, and they introduced us to the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which manages projects aboard the International Space Station.”Tympanogen applied for a CASIS grant to develop Perf-Fix for wound care and won a $210,000 award for the space station project. “That’s how we ended up designing this material to not just explore the basic science aspects of what happens in microgravity, but also to take the data that we collect and start making something that’s useful for people on earth as well.”

Fellow NASA scientists and researchers, who are always looking for ways to improve space technology, saw Tympanogen and lights began to go off.  They decided to test the gel technology in microgravity to see if it had potential to be useful in space expeditions. “Since no one else has ever looked at this sort of phenomenon in microgravity conditions, we are starting at the very beginning,” Horn-Ranney says. Tympanogen’s leap into space began with a small step into Tulane’s Office of Technology Transfer and Intellectual Property Development seven years ago. The office gave them a $20,000 pilot grant to conduct animal studies that showed the gel could work as designed. They used the data to launch their company. The office helped them apply for a patent and introduced them to resources throughout Tulane to help them develop their innovation into a biotech venture.

On Dec. 5, NASA launched into space on the SpaceX Dragon Cargo Ship to run experiments to see how the gel used in their patch works in microgravity with hopes that, if all goes well, the technology could be expanded to one day help astronauts on expeditions as well as soldiers in combat.  On the space station, astronauts release the gel into other liquids to see how it reacts in microgravity and how well the drugs within the gel flow into other types of liquid. They will run concurrent experiments on earth to compare how the materials react differently in space.

John Christie, executive director of the Office of Technology Transfer and Intellectual Property Development, says he couldn’t be prouder of the company’s success.  Horn-Ranney and Khoshakhlagh watched the SpaceX launch in person at the Kennedy Space Center. The two friends and business partners embraced as the rocket soared beyond view, leaving behind a billowing trail of smoke high above the clouds.

“We were just standing there watching it, and I couldn’t believe that we had actually done it. We sent something into space!” she says. “It was emotional for us not just for what we had accomplished, but what we had accomplished together.”

Tympanogen founders are giddy with excitement to go over the results of the space expedition and are excited to see where that data will lead them.  

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