At a Glance
- Results from the first ISS National Lab rodent research mission (RR-1), conducted by the Novartis Institutes of Biomedical Research, were published in the journal Scientific Reports.
- Rodent research provides accelerated models of disease for scientists to study the mechanisms behind disease and test new treatments.
- The goal of the RR-1 mission was to validate the Rodent Research Hardware System on the ISS and investigate whether microgravity might reveal molecular mechanisms of skeletal muscle atrophy that could help improve therapies for patients on Earth.
- Novartis is one of several commercial entities leveraging the ISS National Lab to advance research and development in ways not possible on Earth.
- The RR-1 mission paved the way for many subsequent rodent research investigations on the ISS National Lab from both commercial entities and academic institutions.
Today, researchers from the Novartis Institutes of Biomedical Research—the research arm of the major pharmaceutical company Novartis—published findings from the first-ever rodent research investigation onboard the International Space Station (ISS). This investigation, Rodent Research (RR)-1, served both to validate the Rodent Research Hardware System on the ISS and explore the molecular basis of skeletal muscle atrophy in microgravity.
Scientists have used rodents as model organisms in human health studies for more than 100 years. Rodents are powerful models to study human disease due to their genetic similarities to humans and their short lifespans, enabling studies on accelerated timescales. For this reason, in the 1950s, scientists began sending mice to space to study the effects of spaceflight on human health, and rodents flew on several U.S. space shuttle missions. However, space-based rodent research hit a turning point in 2014 with the debut of the Rodent Research Hardware System on the ISS, which opened the door to longer-term rodent studies in space to advance research benefiting human health back on Earth.
Spaceflight induces changes in many body systems, leading to skeletal muscle and bone loss, immune dysfunction, and cardiovascular deconditioning, among other effects. These space-induced changes in some cases mimic effects associated with aging and chronic disease on Earth. Thus, space-based rodent research may provide scientists with accelerated models of disease to investigate the mechanisms behind disease and test new treatments.
Novartis is one of the increasing number of commercial entities leveraging the ISS National Lab to advance research and development (R&D) in ways not possible on the ground. In their RR-1 investigation, Novartis researchers assessed muscle changes in the hind limb muscles of mice exposed to microgravity using two groups of mice: one group of mice deficient in the Muscle RING Finger-1 (MuRF-1) gene—believed to play a role in triggering muscle wasting—and one group of wild-type mice with normal expression of the MuRF-1 gene. The research team examined changes in muscle mass and muscle fiber size as well as changes in protein and gene expression, comparing results from the two groups.
Novartis’ RR-1 results on the mechanisms underlying skeletal muscle changes in microgravity were published today in the journal Scientific Reports in a special microgravity issue. This is the second publication from RR-1, the first published by NASA’s Ames Research Center in collaboration with Novartis detailing the physical behavior of mice while in space.
Muscle wasting, which is associated with multiple diseases and affects more than half of the geriatric population, represents a significant health burden that greatly reduces quality of life. Microgravity induces accelerated muscle wasting, and space-based rodent research could help researchers better understand the mechanisms behind muscle atrophy and identify new molecular targets for the development of novel muscle wasting treatments, providing substantial benefit to patients on Earth.
Following the successful RR-1 mission, Novartis went on to conduct additional rodent research investigations onboard the ISS National Lab focused on muscle atrophy. In an investigation that launched in December 2017, Novartis partnered with the Houston Methodist Research Institute and NanoMedical Systems to test an implantable drug delivery system for a muscle wasting drug using a rodent model with microgravity-induced muscle atrophy. Such a drug delivery system would avoid the need for daily injections and could translate into a commercial product in the future.
Rodent research on the ISS National Lab has come a long way since the RR-1 mission, with several subsequent rodent research investigations from both commercial entities, including Eli Lilly and Company, and leading academic institutions. Moreover, tissue sharing from rodent research missions has enabled additional researchers to use spaceflight samples to advance their research on the ground. This successful tissue sharing paved the way for the ISS National Lab’s recent Rodent Research Reference (RRR) Missions.
RRR Missions, which supplement traditional rodent research missions from single investigators, maximize resource utilization by allowing multiple investigators to access specimens from a single rodent research mission. Following the successful first RRR Mission, which launched in December 2018, the ISS National Lab issued a request for proposals for a second RRR Mission, which is scheduled to launch on SpaceX’s upcoming 18th commercial resupply services mission.
Learn more about the value of space-based rodent research in the Upward feature article “Rodent Rocket Research: Biomedical Discovery in Space.”