In 2016, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins was in the midst of her first mission to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the Expedition 48 and 49 crew. During her initial stint on the orbiting laboratory, Rubins contributed to a variety of life science investigations that sought to push the limits of research and innovation both to improve patient care on Earth and to help astronauts live and work in space more effectively. During her time on station, Rubins became the first person to sequence DNA in space and the first to perform long-term mammalian cell culture on the ISS.
Additionally, Rubins is a strong advocate for communicating the importance of the research taking place on station and conveyed that sentiment during a live downlink with National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins in 2016. Now, Rubins is back onboard the space station as part of the Expedition 63 and 64 crew—and on Friday, March 26, Collins and Rubins once again had a live downlink conversation focused on life science research on the orbiting laboratory.
During their initial downlink in 2016, Collins talked about a collaboration with one of the branches of NIH to conduct innovative biotechnology research on the space station. Specifically, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) had recently partnered with the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) on the Tissue Chips in Space initiative. Through this initiative, investigators can leverage the unique microgravity environment on the ISS U.S. National Laboratory to advance tissue chip research. Tissue chips, small chips containing human cells grown on an artificial scaffold to model the structure and function of human tissue, allow scientists to better model diseases and more accurately screen potential new drugs. Tissue chip research in space could help accelerate drug discovery and development for the benefit of human health on Earth.
Over the last five years, NCATS has funded a series of tissue chip payloads that have launched to the orbiting laboratory, and Rubins has facilitated three of these investigations: Cardinal Heart from Stanford University, Electrical Stimulation of Human Myocytes in Microgravity from the University of Florida, and Cartilage-Bone-Synovium from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In their second downlink, Rubins and Collins discussed the importance of conducting fundamental research in space and, in particular, the NIH-funded investigations sponsored by the ISS National Lab. Given Rubins’ extensive background as a biologist and infectious disease researcher, this was an extraordinary discussion between leading scientific minds exploring how space-based research can enable valuable scientific advancements on our planet. A recording of the downlink can be viewed in this NASA video.
Additionally, CASIS recently released a new research announcement for in-space production applications in the area of tissue engineering and biomanufacturing. Advancing in-space production applications onboard the space station has been identified as a strategic priority for both NASA and the ISS National Lab. Enabling opportunities and driving demand within this area will be instrumental in the development of a robust and sustainable market in low Earth orbit. To learn more about ISS National Lab Research Announcement 2021-6: In-Space Production Applications: Tissue Engineering and Biomanufacturing, including how to register for an upcoming informational webinar on April 8, please visit the research announcement webpage.