Innovation in Orbit How wound-healing technology developed by a Tulane biotech startup became a NASA test project on the International Space Station.

By Keith Brannon

When former biomedical engineering graduate students Elaine Horn-Ranney and Parastoo Khoshakhlagh were working in a Tulane University lab years ago, they came up with an idea for a gel-based patch to help physicians repair damaged eardrums without surgery. They were determined to take the technology as far as they could go.

They never imagined that would include a trip 240 miles above Earth to the International Space Station.

Elaine Horn-Ranney, PhD, (left) and Parastoo Khoshakhlagh, PhD, in a lab at the Kennedy Space Center. The two Tulane School of Science and Engineering alumni co-founded Tympanogen in 2014. Photo by NASA.

On Dec. 5, NASA launched their innovation into space on the SpaceX Dragon Cargo Ship to run experiments to see how the gel used in their patch works in microgravity. The space agency hopes the technology can be expanded to one day deliver therapeutics to astronauts and help prevent soldiers injured in combat from developing deadly sepsis infections.

“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, co-founder and chief executive officer of Tympanogen.

Horn-Ranney (BSE '08, PhD '13), and Khoshakhlagh (BME '13,PhD ’15) launched Tympanogen in 2014 as School of Science and Engineering graduate students with Dr. Jesse Ranney (BSE '08), Horn-Ranney’s husband, who was in medical school. At the time, the technology was designed to repair chronic perforations in the tympanic membrane of the ear. The only treatment for tears in the tympanic membrane is surgery, which is costly. Tympanogen's Perf-Fix gel delivers drugs to the wound site and forms a barrier that acts as a scaffolding, allowing the body to heal around it.

SpaceX CRS-16 launched Dec. 5, 2018.

On the space station, astronauts will use specially designed plates to 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.

“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.

“Basically all of the resources we needed on campus were available to us,” Horn-Ranney says. “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.”

Specially designed plates (top and bottom left) will release the gel into other liquids to see how it reacts in microgravity. Tympanogen's Perf-Fix gel patch (bottom right) was designed for eardrum repair.

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.”

The company is still developing its original product for eardrum repair and hopes to test it in clinical trials within the next two years.

Tympanogen founders Jesse Ranney, Elaine Horn-Ranney and Parastoo Khoshakhlagh.

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.

“If you come to Tulane and have a great idea — whether it’s in engineering, science or biomedical technology — there is no limit to where you can take it,” Christie says.

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.”

Parastoo Khoshakhlagh and Elaine Horn-Ranney at the Kennedy Space Center.

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