Brett Janis ’14: Altering biological medicine as we know it

Brett Janis ’14

Major: Biology

Bio: Ph.D. candidate, University of Louisville; cofounder of DesiCorp Inc.; volunteer, Kentucky Science Center

Brett Janis '14
“Cornell College’s block plan trained me to become an overnight expert on any topic that I needed to learn about.”

My research is focused on remarkable organisms that can survive completely dried out, a process termed anhydrobiosis. In this state of life without water, plants and animals can survive for millennia before they rehydrate and continue their life cycles. These plants and animals use specialized molecules that, generally, turn them into glass to protect their cellular structures.

My goal is to use these special molecules to allow cells, such as human red blood cells, to be dried and stored just like these organisms. If we accomplish this, then packed red blood cell transfusions would be available in places that do not have reliable access to refrigeration or electricity. It would also extend the shelf-life of packed red blood cells, allowing the U.S. to stockpile blood for emergencies or to prevent shortages for the first time in history.

I began my Ph.D. research on proteins that allow the embryos of brine shrimp, which are more popularly called “sea monkeys,” to survive for several years without water. When we arrived at the University of Louisville, my adviser, Dr. Menze, was invited to an interdepartmental seminar meant to promote collaboration. My adviser could not make this meeting, so I went, and I learned about Dr. Kopechek’s work using an ultrasound to load DNA into human cells for gene therapies. I then approached both Dr. Kopechek and Dr. Menze about trying to use this method to load trehalose, a specialized sugar found in the sea monkey embryos, into human red blood cells. Despite it being the first attempt in our lab, we recovered intact red blood cells after several months in the dried state. From there, we applied for funding to develop this technology into something that, we hope, will make life-saving blood transfusions available to millions of patients every year.

In 2017, we received funding geared toward developing socially relevant technologies that have commercial applications. With additional National Science Foundation Innovation Corps funding and basic training in business and entrepreneurship, we cofounded DesiCorp, Inc.

The work I am doing is exciting, but it is not guaranteed to work and, even if it does, being remembered for it doesn’t really help anyone. I would like to live in a way that leaves a positive influence on my friends, family, and anyone else I interact with.

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