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Blast Off! Sending Human Tissue Chips into Space

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Tissue Chips in Space

Credit: Josh Valcarcel, NASA

A big challenge in unlocking the mysteries of aging is how long you need to study humans, or even human cells, to get answers. But, in partnership with NASA, NIH is hoping that space will help facilitate this important area of research.

It’s already known, from what’s been seen in astronauts, that the weightless conditions found in space can speed various processes associated with aging. So, might it be possible to use the space station as a lab to conduct aging experiments?

To find out, NIH-funded researchers are loading a few dozen human tissue chips—tiny, 3D devices bioengineered to model different tissues and organs—onto a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft that will ferry supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory, which is orbiting about 400 kilometers above Earth. If all goes as planned, SpaceX and its special biomedical cargo will lift off from Cape Canaveral, FL at 1:16 p.m. ET on Wednesday, December 5.

These tissue chips, which model various aspects of the human immune system, represent the first in a series of three biomedical research payloads being sent to the space station. They will be followed in the coming months by chips that model the lungs, kidneys, bone and cartilage, and the blood-brain barrier.

This research cargo stems from a unique collaboration started a few years ago between NASA and NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). The collaboration, which now includes NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), spawned the Tissue Chips in Space initiative. This effort encourages researchers to design experiments that take advantage of the low-gravity conditions found aboard the space station.

Under weightless conditions, the biophysics of cell growth is simpler, chemical reactions can be easier to track, and proteins crystallize more uniformly. This simplicity may make space-based experiments helpful not only for understanding biology, but for screening for new drugs that might slow aging or treat age-related diseases.

For the first Tissue Chips in Space experiments, a team from the University of California, San Francisco created a set of chips that consist of certain immune cells, bone marrow cells that make the immune cells, and endothelial cells that line the blood vessels and are the site of possible infections. Upon arrival at the space station, these chips will be unloaded by the astronauts and tucked away in an incubator for two weeks. After that, the astronauts will freeze the tissue chips for their eventual return to Earth so researchers can analyze them for changes related to the aging process.

The next set of tissue chips, scheduled to blast into space from Cape Canaveral in February 2019, finally lifted off on May 4. It included a chip that models the blood-brain barrier. This blood vessel-tissue interface can prevent certain molecules—including some potentially beneficial therapies—from entering the brain.

I’ll be anticipating some some really cool science results in the coming months!


2017 Tissue Chips in Space Projects (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)

University of California, San Francisco Tissue Chip Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

Tissue Chips in Space (NCATS)

Video: Tissue Chips in Space (NASA)

Organs on Chips in Space (NASA)

Tissue Chip for Drug Screening (NCATS)

NIH Support: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering

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