KENNEDY SPACE CENTER (FL), May 19, 2023 – More than 100,000 people are on the national transplant list, with 80 percent of those patients waiting for a new kidney. Researchers from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine are partnering with the RegenMed Development Organization to send bioengineered liver and kidney constructs to space to explore ways to help reduce the number of people waiting for vital organs. In a project launching on Axiom Space’s second private astronaut mission (Ax-2), the team will leverage the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory to examine microgravity’s effects on the vascularization of these thick tissues. Findings will help lay the foundation for in-space production of human tissue that could be used to improve disease modeling and patient care on Earth.
Using tissue engineering, scientists aim to grow human tissues, and possibly organs someday, in the lab. Due to the effects of gravity, this process usually requires scaffolding to help support the cells as they grow. However, in the microgravity conditions on the space station, researchers can grow high-quality tissues without scaffolding. Such tissues could be used for cell therapy treatments, disease modeling, and testing of new therapeutics. The investigation from Wake Forest and RegenMed will study the development of kidney and liver constructs on the orbiting laboratory.
“This experiment is the first time that we’ve actually sent solid bioprinted organ tissue into space,” said Anthony Atala, M.D. at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “It’s an important mission that will allow us to look at the early time points in the tissue’s development for viability.”
According to Atala, the team is launching six kidney and six liver constructs on this mission. The live tissues will be exposed to microgravity for the course of the mission. Some tissues will be preserved at 5 days and the rest at 10 days. Upon returning to Earth, the team will analyze the tissues, examining their properties at the different time points. Results will provide details on the functionality and survival of these developing human tissues, which could not only lead to improved treatments and patient care on Earth but also help shed light on ways to mitigate the effects of spaceflight on the human body.
Atala says this mission will lay the groundwork for future investigations, including another project sponsored by the ISS National Lab that was awarded through NASA’s Vascular Tissue Challenge. This upcoming project seeks to foster the development of thick, metabolically functional human vascularized organ tissue in the controlled laboratory environment of the space station.
“From a scientific standpoint, this is truly the next frontier for regenerative medicine because we are testing these tissues under different conditions that will allow us to help patients here on Earth, but hopefully also future space travelers,” Atala said.
Private astronaut missions are providing researchers a new access point in leveraging the ISS National Lab, accelerating research and technology development in low Earth orbit, bringing further knowledge to the scientific community, and enabling commerce in space. The Ax-2 mission is targeted for launch from Kennedy Space Center no earlier than May 21 at 5:37 p.m. EDT. This mission will include more than 15 ISS National Lab-sponsored payloads. Please visit our launch page to learn more about all ISS National Lab-sponsored research on Ax-2.
Download a high-resolution image: Bioengineered liver and kidney constructs
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About the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory: The International Space Station (ISS) is a one-of-a-kind laboratory that enables research and technology development not possible on Earth. As a public service enterprise, the ISS National Lab allows researchers to leverage this multiuser facility to improve life on Earth, mature space-based business models, advance science literacy in the future workforce, and expand a sustainable and scalable market in low Earth orbit. Through this orbiting national laboratory, research resources on the space station are available to support non-NASA science, technology and education initiatives from U.S. government agencies, academic institutions, and the private sector. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), Inc. manages the ISS National Lab, under Cooperative Agreement with NASA, facilitating access to its permanent microgravity research environment, a powerful vantage point in low Earth orbit, and the extreme and varied conditions of space. To learn more about the ISS National Lab, visit www.ISSNationalLab.org.
About Axiom Space: Axiom Space is building history, guided by the vision of a thriving home in space that benefits every human, everywhere. The leading provider of human spaceflight services and developer of human-rated space infrastructure, Axiom Space operates end-to-end missions to the International
Space Station today while developing its successor, Axiom Station – a permanent commercial destination in low-Earth orbit that will sustain human growth off the planet and bring untold benefits back home. For more information about Axiom Space, visit www.axiomspace.com.
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