Alumni at a Glance: Brett Janis ’14

Brett Janis ’14 has a superpower—research skills that may just alter biological medicine as we know it. Imagine if human blood did not need to be refrigerated and could be provided anywhere there is a need—the front lines of the battlefield, clinics in the least-developed countries, or long-distance spaceflights.

It was Professor Craig Tepper’s Genetics class that inspired Janis to continue his education in the biological sciences after graduation—on to grad school to study cryptobiosis.

The organisms most commonly used in cryptobiosis research are tardigrades (also known as water bears), a microscopic animal that can survive drying out at any stage of their life, unlike the brine shrimp (also known as sea monkeys) that Janis works with. Brine shrimp survive because their mother encases each embryo into a little shell called a cyst when she senses that winter is coming. With their new shells, they undergo a type of cryptobiosis called anhydrobiosis. Their metabolic procedures stop while the organisms continue to live almost indefinitely until their environment changes. (You give the sea monkeys water.)

One of Janis’s biggest achievements was to develop a novel application of sonoporation (a gentler application than previously used) to solve a 25-year old problem in cryobiology. Janis describes the sonoporation application this way:

“It pops bubbles next to the cells, which sends little jets that shoot the preservatives into the cells, almost like a bullet, then the cell heals in seconds.”

He co-invented and patented a device that can load virtually any compound, such as sugars, nucleic acids, cellular stains, or entire proteins, into nearly any cell with high-throughput.

“We can load bio-compatible preservatives into human red blood cells that protect them during freeze-drying. In this dried state, red blood cells can be stored for years at room temperature, extending their shelf-life from 42 days up to two years, thus far, and although we aren’t transfusing the blood yet, this may allow for blood transfusions to be administered in regions that do not have access to refrigeration or blood screening and processing,” Janis said. “It is reconstituted into blood by adding clean water.”

To further develop his research, Janis won a grant through the National Institutes of Health-funded Excite Program. He’s also listed as essential personnel on a flight opportunities grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to develop methods and equipment to rehydrate blood in space along with a Partnership for Innovation grant from the National Science Foundation.

Janis is a co-founder of a biomedical company, DesiCorp, with the co-inventors of this new technology. They received funding through the National Science Foundation’s ICorps program. They were also a member of a training cohort at a medical corporation accelerator called XlerateHealth. Janis and his company are currently investigating approaches to work through the FDA to make their technology readily available for laboratory settings, which can eliminate the need to freeze cellular samples, and in clinical settings to eliminate blood shortages.

One Course At A Time taught me how to become an overnight expert, allowing me to pivot and develop novel hypotheses whenever I hit a roadblock in my research,” Janis said.

Janis and Carty
Bret Janis ’14 with Shannon Carty ’13
Janis’s major: Biology
Resides in: Louisville, Kentucky

“The heavy reading load taught me to keep up with the primary literature in my field, which has served me very well. One Course At A Time and a liberal arts education taught me how to shift my thinking from my own field into another, which has been invaluable as I’ve learned bioengineering, acoustics, and quantum physics to develop productive collaborative projects.”

When asked if Janis has any advice for students interested in Cornell, he said, “You will learn more practical skills in classes at Cornell College than you will almost anywhere else. If you enroll, embrace the liberal arts education and branch out. The ability to draw on knowledge from many different fields, such as acoustics, chemistry, and philosophy, has been just as valuable to my career as a biologist as taking additional biology classes.”

As a side note, Janis’s fondest memories of Cornell involve studying histology late into the night for Professor Barbara Christie-Pope’s Anatomy and Physiology class while Janis’s now fiance, Shannon Carty ’13, would do the same for her Mineralogy class. They would meet at a halfway point for a moonlit walk down the Ped Mall to grab some coffee and keep on studying.

Good to know that late night study sessions and moonlit walks can lead to such amazing breakthroughs for humanity.