BEVERLY — “Hydrogels in space.”
That was the cryptic text message Quad Technologies co-founder Brian Plouffe received from co-founder Sean Kevlahan at the end of last month.
Plouffe, who was flying back from a conference in Orlando, knew exactly what it meant: The fledgling medical device company would get to fly an experiment involving its microbeads aboard the International Space Station.
Kevlahan had just accepted an award as part of the MassChallenge Startup Accelerator competition on Oct. 30, the day the Red Sox won the World Series. To the company’s four founders, including Plouffe and Kevlahan, this message was the equivalent of slugger David Ortiz hitting a home run into orbit.
Quad’s grant from the nonprofit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space will allow the company to study the effects of microgravity in the manufacturing of its microbeads.
Microbeads are tiny magnetic, coated beads that are used in medical research. The ones that Quad is producing can be used to isolate stem cells found in blood — stem cells that were only discovered in 2008.
Such stem cells are difficult to harvest out of blood. The ability to isolate cells is a key step in laboratory and clinical research, however.
The company says its magnetic microbeads, called QuickBeads, will enable scientists to isolate target cells from a large mix of other cells. The very small magnetic beads coated with the company’s chemistry can bind with stem cells outside the body. A magnet can be used to separate the stem cells. Then the microbeads can be dissolved without harming the cell.
Once the stem cells are separated, they can aid in research against a host of diseases.
While magnetic beads have been used in cell separation before, Kevlahan says the current processes are highly toxic to cells.
”With our chemistry that we patented, and that we coat these magnetic particles with, we give a way to decouple the stem cell from the magnetic bead when they are post-processed — without killing the stem cells,” Kevlahan said.