MXene Immune Cell Research Takes Flight

Benj Chacon Zero G Mxene study
Benjamin Chacon in zero gravity.

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 gravity.

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."