Earlier this week, a team of researchers from the University of Washington School of Pharmacy published commentary in the peer-reviewed journal Clinical and Translational Science discussing the opportunities and challenges of conducting tissue chip research in space.
The team’s investigation, which launched to the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory in May, was awarded through the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) Tissue Chips in Space initiative. In 2016, NCATS, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced a four-year collaboration with the ISS National Laboratory to support the use of tissue chip technology for translational research onboard the ISS to benefit human health on Earth.
Tissue chips use human cells grown on an artificial scaffold to model the detailed physical structure and function of human tissue. The investigation from the University of Washington team is aimed at studying tissue chip systems that model the human kidney. Through the experiment, the team sought to gain a better understanding of proteinuria (a condition in which a person’s urine contains an abnormal level of protein), kidney stone formation, and the body’s use of Vitamin D.
In their published commentary, the University of Washington team notes how they overcame some of the challenges involved in designing an experiment for spaceflight. The team discusses how they compressed the equipment necessary for the experiment in order to fit into the small space allocated on the ISS and how they provided multiple levels of containment for materials requiring handling by ISS crew members. The team also engineered their tissue chip system to be capable of supporting cells for an extended period of time in case of launch delays.
In the commentary, the team goes on to describe the valuable opportunities provided by space-based tissue chip research. Prolonged exposure to microgravity conditions induces rapid changes in the body, such as loss of bone mass, loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength, immune system dysfunction, and cardiovascular deconditioning. Research using tissue chips in space provides a unique opportunity to evaluate accelerated models of aging and disease and enables accelerated and higher-accuracy drug screening. Insights gained from such studies could shed light on disease development and progression and could help scientists identify new targets for the development of therapeutics to prevent and treat many conditions affecting people on Earth.
Successful tissue chip investigations like the one from the University of Washington have demonstrated that it is possible to take tissue chip technology from the laboratory to space to address real-world clinical research questions. This will have benefit not only to the individual research groups but also to the industrialization of tissue chip technology for clinical applications on Earth by accelerating the engineering design and improving the throughput of these systems for the future.
Learn more about tissue chip research on the ISS National Laboratory and the NCATS Tissue Chips in Space initiative in the ISS360 articles “Collaborating with NIH on Tissue Chips in Space” and “Studying Human Disease with Tissue Chips in Space” and in the related resources below.