At a Glance
- 27 journal articles detail results from ISS National Lab R&D, including findings from Merck & Co. related to the company’s anticancer drug Keytruda® and results from the Mighty Mice in Space investigation.
- Two new products resulted from ISS National Lab R&D in the satellite and education sectors.
- Multiyear sponsorship of research solicitations by NSF continued in support of fundamental physical and biological sciences.
- Key areas of research continue to mature in both the fundamental and applied sciences, toward benefits to life on Earth and in support of the growing LEO economy.
FY20 was an impressive year for the release of peer-reviewed journal articles resulting from CASIS-sponsored ISS National Lab projects. The majority of the 27 published articles were from commercial users, including startups funded through the Boeing Technology in Space Prize. Peer-reviewed journal articles are a critical means to disseminate findings from fundamental R&D activities, and they not only advance scientific knowledge but also lend credibility, prestige, and merit to investigators who test hypotheses and demonstrate the capabilities of research platforms like the ISS. Of note, a strong publication base often precedes commercial investment in a particular sector.
FY20 publications included the following:
- Investigators from Merck & Co. published results from their efforts to identify key variables in the crystallization of pembrolizumab, the active pharmaceutical agent in the cancer drug Keytruda®. Results from this project could lead to improvements in the manufacture, storage, and delivery of pembrolizumab, which could reduce costs and improve patient quality of life.
- A non-peer-reviewed publication detailing results from a project supported by the National Cancer Institute showed that the team was able to solve protein structures that they could not solve with Earth-grown crystals, including that of KRAS proteins bound to small-molecule inhibitors. Mutations in the RAS family of genes are responsible for more than 30% of all human cancers, including some of the deadliest (and most costly to treat) such as pancreatic, lung, and colon cancers.
- Results from an investigation led by the Mayo Clinic established the feasibility and safety of growing mesenchymal stem cells in space for human clinical applications on Earth.
- Seven papers detailed results from rodent research. Two discussed liver function and chronic stress, while five discussed changes to musculoskeletal health—one of which made the cover of Advanced Therapeutics and another (in PNAS, the second most cited scientific journal today) that detailed findings of the “Mighty Mice” investigation, which support the hypothesis that myostatin inhibition may be effective in preventing or treating muscle and bone loss not only in astronauts but also in people with disuse atrophy on Earth.
- Orbital Sidekick published results from its technology demonstration of a space-based, hyperspectral sensor system deployed on the ISS. For defense, hyperspectral technology can provide plume, camouflage, and target detection; detect chemical weapon signatures; identify military resources and troop movement; and aid with relief efforts.
- Seven publications detailed results related to R&D sponsored by NSF in the areas of combustion, fluid dynamics, and transport phenomena. Results from these fundamental science investigations promise to generate data on material and thermal flows at near atomic scale in the absence of gravity that will inform our ability to design more efficient mechanical and biomedical devices for use on Earth.
- Emulate, Inc., an NIH-sponsored commercial investigator who has gone one to raise substantial additional capital investment, published their research results. This publication, along with several additional articles on other ISS National Lab-sponsored research, showcased the value of the ISS for regenerative medicine and therapeutic development.
- Other publications detailed results in agricultural biocontrol, nanochannel drug delivery, and microalgae in spacecraft life support systems and food production.
In addition, three reviews and commentaries (co-authored or authored by NIH) focused on the value of microgravity research in stem cell biology and microphysiological systems (also called tissue chips), and another review discussed the value of the ISS for drug discovery and development.
These articles (citations for which can be found in Appendix E) join the more than 150 peer-reviewed articles from ISS National Lab investigations and the roughly 2,000 articles from ISS investigations internationally. They also complement the five patents, multiple spin-off companies, and 15 products to date resulting from ISS National Lab investigations. Additionally, two new products in FY20 demonstrate the capacity of the ISS National Lab to support applied R&D programs and private-sector objectives:
- Self-contained, payload-centric, Hyper-Integrated Satlets (HISats; small, mass-producible units) provide complete satellite functionality in a nanosatellite-scale package. From NovaWurks, Inc., this resilient and affordable modular satellite architecture was first developed in conjunction with the construction of DARPA spacecraft.
- Educational videos and other digital content from Nickelodeon’s Slime in Space experiments were released to help students learn about microgravity research and topics such as fluid flow and materials engineering. The full video of demonstrations and curriculum on Nickelodeon’s website have received more than 100,000 views.
In parallel, on the front end of the R&D project life cycle, two FY20 NSF-sponsored solicitations continued to support fundamental science that leverages the persistent microgravity environment of the ISS to advance scientific discovery for the benefit of Earth. Beginning in 2016, CASIS has partnered with the NSF Engineering Directorate to sponsor these annual research solicitations, which have resulted in five solicitations in the physical sciences area of Transport Phenomena (2016 through 2020) and three solicitations in the biomedical area of Tissue Engineering and Mechanobiology (2018 through 2020). These solicitation cycles have resulted in the award of 27 NSF peer-reviewed proposals representing 29 payloads—and the infusion of more than $18 million of non-NASA grant funding to the principal investigators via the NSF grant awards and funding for the Implementation Partners supporting their spaceflight investigations. (For a full list of FY20 R&D solicitations, see Appendix A.)
Quick Facts to Date for FY20 Key R&D Areas
- Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine
This broad field spans from cell-based studies to organoid growth and 3D printing of human tissues. Regenerative medicine research in space is aimed at improving health and longevity using tissue chips and a biofabrication facility to address larger challenges with real-world applications (e.g., to model and study human disease, allow higher-accuracy and personalized drug testing, or advance research to address the shortage of organs for transplantation). In microgravity, tissue chips also have the potential to accelerate pathways for understanding the mechanisms behind disease and developing new treatments. Both fundamental science investigations as well as technology development and demonstration in this area are poised to benefit life on Earth and the growing LEO economy.
CASIS Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine to date:
- 28 payloads flown
- 51 investigations added to the portfolio (5 new this year)
- 8 Implementation Partners supporting these investigations
- $28 million in grant commitments from multiyear programs with NSF and NIH
- 30 peer-reviewed articles published
- Advanced Materials
Microgravity allows researchers to observe, model, and exploit underlying physical mechanisms and dynamics that are typically masked by gravity-dependent phenomena in terrestrial studies of combustion, fluids, complex fluids, soft matter, and hard materials. Scientists can leverage these effects to develop next-generation production methods, improve understanding of mechanisms involved in material transformations, advance fundamental materials discovery, and test processes or manufacturing methods of novel design and synthesis pathways. Moreover, while Earth-based experiments are often conducted under artificial conditions to simulate extreme operational conditions, space is the ultimate test objective with simultaneous exposure to multiple environmental extremes, providing a mechanism for rapid failure mode and effect analysis of materials and components. Fundamental science investigations as well as technology development and demonstration in this area provide both terrestrial benefits and support for the expanding economy in LEO.
CASIS Advanced Materials to date:
- 24 payloads flown
- 30 investigations in the portfolio (5 new this year)
- 13 states represented by investigators
- 9 Implementation Partners supporting these investigations
- $13 million in grant commitments from multiyear programs in collaboration with NSF
- 3 patents and 1 product
- 3-fold increase in external (non-CASIS, non-NASA) funding over the last 3 years
- In-Space Production Applications
The production of advanced materials or products via space-based manufacturing may be a viable commercial option for some sectors if either the quality or performance of the material is greatly improved and the mass-to-value ratio is advantageous. These benefits would provide a competitive advantage that may balance the long-term cost of space-based production—particularly if the commercialization of LEO continues to improve the availability and affordability of R&D onboard spaceflight platforms. Investigations in this area are largely proof of concept, with the expectation that some may progress to scalable, sustainable business models within the future LEO economy.
CASIS In-Space Production Applications to date:
- 19 payloads flown
- 8 investigations in the portfolio (1 new this year)
- 3 Implementation Partners supporting these investigations
- <5% of total project costs required CASIS funding
- 2 facilities in orbit (additive manufacturing facility and bioprinter)
- 3 companies attempting in-orbit manufacturing of the optical fiber ZBLAN
- 1 patent
- Macromolecular Crystal Growth
High-quality crystals of organic molecules, such as proteins, can lead to improvements in drug development, formulation, manufacturing, and storage—as well as agricultural solutions that better protect crops and enhance plant growth. Moreover, inorganic crystal growth can reveal new information about materials such as semiconductors and scintillators used in a variety of applications. In microgravity, researchers are able to grow crystals that are larger and/or more well-ordered with improved uniformity compared with crystals grown on Earth. Crystal growth for structure-based drug design, product enhancement, or intellectual-property generation provide important benefits to life on Earth and accelerate the economic development of LEO.
CASIS Macromolecular Crystal Growth to date:
- 24 payloads flown
- 25 investigations in the portfolio (1 new this year)
- 13 states represented by investigators
- 7 Implementation Partners supporting these investigations
- 8 peer-reviewed articles published
- 80%+ increase in external (non-CASIS, non-NASA) funding since FY15
- Rodent Research
Scientists have used rodents as model organisms in human health studies for more than 100 years on Earth and for decades in space. Rodents are powerful models to study human disease due to their genetic similarities to humans and short life span, which enables studies on accelerated timescales. Rodent research provides accelerated models of disease for scientists to study the mechanisms behind disease, and rodents are used extensively in preclinical testing for new drugs. Space-based research using model organisms such as rodents provides insight into not only the effects of spaceflight on astronaut health but also effects that mimic human disease on Earth, such as bone loss, muscle wasting, heart disease, immune dysfunction, and other conditions. Rodent research on the ISS enables longer-term experiments in this unique environment, and such fundamental science and translational biology studies provide valuable insights that improve life on Earth.
CASIS Rodent Research to date:
- 16 payloads flown
- 33 investigations in the portfolio
- 15 states represented by investigators
- 4 Implementation Partners supporting these investigations
- 14 peer-reviewed articles published
- Environmental Sustainability
The ISS National Lab also provides an ideal platform to evaluate technologies for improvements in ecosystem and atmospheric monitoring, membrane and water purification systems, green manufacturing processes including biodegradable polymers, and agricultural processes as potential solutions for a healthier planet. Sustainability bridges many of the science disciplines supported by the ISS and includes projects related to agriculture, the carbon cycle, Earth imaging, smart and green materials, and water quality. Both fundamental science investigations as well as technology development and demonstration in this area help us work toward solutions that benefit life on Earth now and in the future.
CASIS Environmental Sustainability to date:
- 14 payloads flown
- 31 investigations in the portfolio
- 6 states represented by investigators
- 60% of investigations are from the private sector
- 9 Implementation Partners supporting these investigations
- 4 peer-reviewed articles and 5 products
- CASIS funding is matched by 2.5-fold external (non-CASIS, non-NASA) funding