Prolonged spaceflight can result in many of the same physiological changes associated with aging. Aging can result in bone loss, muscle deterioration, and altered immune system function only at a much quicker rate.
This makes the microgravity environment on ISS a valuable platform for research on conditions associated with the aging process. Two projects funded by NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS through the Tissue Chips in Space Initiative, will take place in collaboration with the ISS National Laboratory https://www.issnationallab.org.
The projects involve using tissue chips which are small devices designed and engineered to model the function of human tissue. By taking tissue chips to space, researchers can observe microgravity-induced changes in human physiology relevant to disease, which could lead to novel therapies for patients on Earth.
One project being conducted by the College of Pharmacy at the University of Florida involves sending tissue chips with human muscle cells to space to better understand muscle wasting and hopefully provide new insights into muscle cell biology by leveraging the unique environment of microgravity.
The team is launching 16 tissue chips containing three dimensional muscle bundles developed from donated sets of skeletal muscle cells obtained through a partnership with the healthcare company Advent Health.
The tissue chips will be housed in a CubeLab available from the ISS National Lab Commercial Service Provider, Space Tango. The CubeLab is outfitted with a camera and microscope system to record muscle movement. Half of the cells from each group will receive electronic stimulation to prompt muscle contraction allowing the researchers to visually examine how muscles function in space. Also, the team will study genetic changes in the tissue chips once they return to Earth.
The research team from the University of California (UCSF) is going to investigate tissue chips as to the relationship between immune aging and healing outcomes in space. This experiment will investigate the effects of microgravity on the body’s immune system, and how these effects play into the aging of immune cells.
By observing immune function in microgravity and during cell recovery back on Earth, the researchers hope to better understand how the immune cells change, the ability of the body to repair itself as we grow older, but also how the immune aging process could be reversed.