Small chips lined with human cells—called “tissue chips”—have the potential to revolutionize medicine by enabling accelerated and higher-accuracy drug screening and improved disease modeling. Using human cells grown on an artificial scaffold, tissue chips model the detailed physical structure and function of human tissue. Researchers are not only using these chips to advance medical research on Earth—they’re also sending tissue chips to space!
Spaceflight affects the human body in many ways, causing changes in bone mass, skeletal muscle mass and strength, immune system function, and cardiovascular function, among others. By conducting research in space, scientists can both analyze these rapid physical changes and test new potential drugs in accelerated models of aging or disease. Because tissue chips recapitulate the structure and function of human tissue, they provide higher-accuracy models than cell cultures, 3D tissue spheroids, or traditional animal models.
In 2016, the ISS National Lab and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), which is part of the National Institutes of Health, announced a four-year collaboration through which NCATS would provide up to $12 million in funding to support the use of tissue chip technology for translational research onboard the International Space Station (ISS) National Lab to benefit human health on Earth. In June 2017, five initial projects were awarded grants through the NCATS Tissue Chips in Space initiative and are scheduled to launch to the space station later this year.
A second funding opportunity supporting tissue chip research in space was announced by the ISS National Lab, NCATS, and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), also part of the National Institutes of Health, in December 2017. Projects awarded through this solicitation will be announced this fall.
Since 2015, the ISS National Lab has participated in the semi-annual National Institutes of Health Tissue Chip Consortium Meeting. At the meeting, which is being held in Bethesda, Maryland this week, researchers who have been awarded grants through the Tissue Chips in Space program will present their ISS National Lab research projects.
For more information about the Tissue Chips in Space initiative, visit the NCATS website.