In microgravity, cells form into 3D structures that more closely resemble cell growth and behavior in the human body, replicating some of the same structures and functions of human organs. Tissue chips, organoids, and 3D cell cultures in space are different model systems using human cells that have each been shown to act as accelerated disease models of human pathologies on Earth. Spaceflight induces changes in body systems that in many cases mimic the onset of health-related outcomes associated with aging and debilitating chronic human diseases. Thus, spaceflight provides opportunities both for analysis of these rapid physical changes and for testing of therapeutics in accelerated models of aging or disease.
Collectively, these model systems offer new insight into the onset and progression of human disease and provide high throughput testing platforms for evaluating drug safety and efficacy. As tissue chips, organoids, and 3D cell culture models are derived from human cells grown in microphysiological systems, they offer the ability to develop personalized avatars of each individual person’s responses to a specific therapeutic intervention or combination of therapies.
Tissue chips are small devices engineered to grow human cells on an artificial scaffold to model the structure and function of human tissues and organs. Because tissue chips are made using human cells and are designed to replicate facets of the physical environment cells experience inside the body, they provide higher-accuracy models. In microgravity, tissue chips have the potential to accelerate pathways for understanding the mechanisms behind disease and developing new treatments.
- Startup company Encapsulate is using an accelerated disease model in microgravity to preclinically validate an automated tumor-on-a-chip system to grow patient-derived cancer cells for testing chemotherapeutic drugs.
Organoids are self-organizing 3D tissue cultures assembled from stem cells that can serve as simplified organ systems for accurate and scalable disease modeling and drug testing. They can also be used as tissue patches for regenerative medicine applications. The integrated biological function in organoids serves as a powerful model for human disease states, and applications of this kind of advanced in-vitro system enable a wide variety of experiments in microgravity; for example, neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disease modeling and applications in personalized medicine.
- In collaboration with Axiom Space, researchers from the University of California San Diego and the Sanford Stem Cell Institute, are studying intestinal cancer, breast cancer, and leukemia organoids in space and testing therapeutics.
3D Cell Culture
In microgravity, cells form complex 3D structures—more similar to tissues in the human body—providing a better model for studying cell behavior, advancing regenerative medicine, and testing the effects of new drugs. Additionally, the ability to manufacture soft human tissue, such as blood vessels, has proven to be difficult on Earth. Bioprinting in microgravity could be beneficial because the scaffolding needed to support printed tissues on Earth to keep the structures from collapsing is not needed in space.
- Startup company MicroQuin leveraged microgravity to grow 3D cultures of prostate and breast cancer cells as well as healthy cells. The research team is characterizing cell structure, gene expression, and cell signaling in the 3D cultures of the cancer cells in comparison with healthy cells..