In this month’s Reaching Orbit, we discussed the new experiments onboard the International Space Station (ISS). One of the most interesting experiments that’s worth digging into involves human tissue. Sounds creepy and it’s probably a bit creepy too, like zombies in space.
Tissue Chips in Space is a futuristic experiment torn from the pages of science fiction novels. The experiment uses human cells to create a facsimile of a human organ on a thumb-sized 3D matrix. Researchers are studying how space habitation affects human cells, from the drugs they take to genetic changes and stresses on the body. While it has implications for improving spaceflight, it’s also applicable to human health and disease back on Earth. The technology in the tissue chips is remarkable. After advancements in tissue engineering and microfabrication in 2016, the National Center for Advancing Translation Sciences (NCATS) and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) collaborated and offered funding to develop and test tissue chips on the ISS. By scaling down the organs to bite sizes, research is far more efficient and can be performed on a larger scale in a cramped environment like the ISS.
Many of the microgravity side effects look like our natural aging process, such as bone loss, immune deficiency, muscle deterioration, and heart complications, which are largely reversed when an astronaut returns to Earth. Researchers want to slow the aging process, again a hallmark of many science fiction novels, by identifying molecular targets. In a related study called Cardinal Heart, researchers will use engineered heart tissues and tissue chips to study three different stem cells. The tissue chips will be exposed to microgravity then returned to Earth for further study. Scientists will know the exact condition of the cells before entering microgravity then track the changes to help isolate the negative effects of gravity and thus to better inform treatments for astronauts and people on Earth. Researchers hope to isolate gene expression changes in each cell and their interactions with other cells.
Scientists will be looking at cellular and tissue level changes that often lead to heart disease or weakening of the heart’s muscles. Novel targets for therapeutic intervention are their main goal, but they also want to identify early changes in cardiac tissue that could lead to long-term damage. Advancements in tissue chip technology has wide ranging implications for studying diseased and healthy hearts, their changes over time and in various conditions.