The Lexington company Space Tango has a role in an International Space Station experiment that seeks to improve the life of diabetics — including company president and CEO Twyman Clements.
Space Tango is a subcontractor for a company called Biorasis Inc., a Connecticut firm that is developing a wireless biosensor that could be implanted under the skin for real-time, continuous monitoring of blood-sugar levels.
The device could potentially help people like Clements, 28, who has Type 1 diabetes. The Nelson County native must test his blood sugar three to seven times a day. He then programs an insulin pump to inject the correct amount of insulin into his body. The process mimics the action of a normal pancreas, the organ that produces insulin.
"I have to prick my finger, and then I have to tell my insulin pump how much insulin I need and it pumps into me through a port," Clements said. "If you miss a test or you don't test enough, your blood sugar can go up or down, and there are complications either way."
A sensor like the Biorasis device would automatically tell the insulin pump to inject the correct amount and would eliminate the need for painful finger pricks and testing.
"You'd essentially have an automated pancreas, and that would greatly reduce complications for diabetics," Clements said.
Naturally, accuracy is of prime importance in such a device. The space station experiment will help Biorasis narrow the margin of error.
While the Biorasis sensor is meant to monitor blood glucose, the device is not in the blood but in the tissue under the skin, said Michail Kastellorizios, senior scientist for Biorasis.
"So it takes a while for glucose to go from the blood to the sensor because it has to travel through the tissue, which is like a gel," he said. "And that delay is a problem because it can result in inaccuracies."
By eliminating gravity, the company can better model how glucose reaches the sensor, Kastellorizios said.
This is where Space Tango and its contract engineers come in. In a lab at the University of Kentucky, they are building the hardware that will perform repeated experiments over several weeks in space.
That hardware includes a cube about the size of a tissue box, which will be inserted into a larger payload rack that transports, stores and supports experiments on the space station. Once it's installed on the space station, Biorasis will be able to control the experiment from their computers in Connecticut.
Kastellorizios said Space Tango was recommended to Biorasis by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the manager of the space station's U.S. laboratory. CASIS also provided money to Biorasis for the biosensor project.
Medical research has been an important part of the space station, which on Nov. 2 marked 15 years of continuous human occupation. Space Tango, incorporated in 2013, sees its niche as helping researchers put their experiments into orbit and using microgravity to make breakthroughs.
Earlier this year, Clements, in his role as senior space systems engineer for the nonprofit corporation Kentucky Space, worked with an experiment that studied how microgravity enhanced the abilities of flatworms to heal themselves and regrow body organs and nervous systems.
That could lead to advances in medical treatments for humans, including treatment of spinal cord injuries, heart failure and degenerative brain diseases such as Parkinson's.
Clements and Kentucky Space also assisted in experiments involving the survivability of brain tumor cells in a microgravity environment.
Collaborating with companies like Biorasis "is really big for us," Clements said. "Our company is built on this thesis of solutions in space for use on Earth."