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International Space Station
The International Space Station serves as a platform for microgravity research. (NASA photo)

For the fifth year in a row, Boeing and the International Space Station’s U.S. national laboratory are partnering to pay out up to $500,000 in grants for startup research in orbit.

The three projects selected this year through the Boston-based MassChallenge “Technology in Space” competition focus on zero-gravity research aimed at developing and testing cancer therapies for use on Earth.

Boeing and the ISS National Lab — managed by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS — have awarded a total of $2.5 million to 14 companies since 2014. Many of the previous awardees have already launched investigations to the space station, including cancer research conducted by Angiex and Ras Labs’ experiments with synthetic muscles for prosthetic devices.

The grants provide seed funding to startups and assist with hardware costs associated with flights to the space station. Boeing is involved in part because it’s the primary U.S. contractor for the International Space Station.

This year’s awards go to:

  • Kernal Biologics, based in Cambridge, Mass., which is developing immunotherapies that use messenger RNA, or mRNA to treat leukemia. The team plans to test candidate mRNA molecules in healthy human cells and leukemia cell lines to determine which molecules are the best for selectively targeting cancer cells in the stressful zero-G environment.
  • MicroQuin, based in San Francisco, which will develop and study complex 3-D models of human breast and prostate tumors as well as their healthy tissue counterparts, all derived from cell lines. Cell growth in zero-G should provide a closer analog to the 3-D structure of tissue in the body.
  • MicroQuin will receive additional support for experiments aimed at crystallizing and studying a protein that is biologically important in tumor formation and cancer survival. The protein is highly complex to purify and crystallize on Earth, but easier to produce in zero gravity.

Final award of any grant money is contingent upon acceptance of legal terms and conditions.

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