The unique combination of physical and chemical properties of MXenes – a
class of two-dimensional transition metal carbides and nitrides discovered
at Drexel more than a decade ago - have allowed researchers to explore new
frontiers in a variety of fields. Last week, Drexel doctoral student
Benjamin Chacon expanded his research to yet another frontier: zero
Chacon, a PhD researcher in the AJ Drexel Nanomaterials Institute (DNI),
traveled to Bordeaux, France, to become a passenger on a parabolic flight,
which exposed him to microgravity for up to 20 seconds at a time. During
those weightless periods, he performed small-scale experiments to determine
how immune cells react to MXenes.
Chacon’s partner on the ground was Laura Fusco, a post-doctoral researcher
from the University of Padua in Italy who spent two years as a Marie Curie
Global Fellow at DNI working on biomedical applications of MXenes. Fusco
has published extensively on the ability of MXenes to modulate immune
cells. Her project with Chacon explored if that ability can help boost
astronauts’ immune systems while in space.
“In zero gravity environments, the immune system can be weakened and
sometimes compromised, posing a huge threat to astronaut health,” Chacon
explains. “This study will give us insights on how MXenes can have the
potential to enhance the immune system when used in space environments.”
For their project, Chacon and Fusco treated immune cells with MXenes and
took half of the samples on the flight while leaving half on earth. With
the flight complete, Fusco will analyze the samples at the University of
Padua using single-cell mass cytometry, a comprehensive way of
characterizing individual cells.
While on the flight, Chacon also collaborated with scientists from the
Université Libre de Bruxelles, who are studying the impact of microgravity
on hydrogels seeded with fibroblasts – a type of cell that promotes wound
healing. The experiment involved using a video game controller to start and
stop measurements of how the gel behaved in microgravity.
Chacon's zero gravity experiment highlights the unique research
opportunities available to Drexel students.
"It was amazing to have such a unique and surreal experience,” he said.
“The research labs at Drexel are high quality and can offer tons of
opportunities to work with experts in a variety of disciplines. There are
so many opportunities to apply your studies in interesting ways."