At the International Space Station (ISS) Research and Development Conference today, a session on exploring promising medical innovations on the ISS brought together an engaging panel to discuss the future of medical research in space.
Panelists included Alessandro Grattoni of Houston Methodist Research Institute, Elaine Horne-Ranney of Tympanogen, Chia Soo of the University of California, Los Angeles, Brian York of Baylor College of Medicine, Jennifer Fogarty of NASA’s Human Research Program, and Lucie Low of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS).
During the session, which was moderated by Julie Robinson, associate director of NASA’s Human Research Program, panelists discussed the utility of the ISS to develop novel therapeutics and drug delivery systems, challenges and unique opportunities associated with conducting medical research on the space station, and methods to obtain funding for innovative medical research in space.
Below highlights some of the insights from panelists on utilizing the unique platform of the ISS for valuable medical research.
Drug Delivery Technology
Alessandro Grattoni and his team are focused on the development of nanochannel technology for controlled delivery of therapeutics. His research includes development of technology for continuous drug delivery over extended periods of time and implantable technology for remote-controlled drug delivery.
“We are focusing our research on these technologies, and the ISS has been a fundamental infrastructure for us to test our system. The ISS offers enormous possibilities and is a driver for the development of new technologies.”—Alessandro Grattoni, Methodist Hospital Research Institute
Novel Osteoporosis Therapy
Chia Soo and her team are developing a novel osteoporosis therapy based on the naturally produced protein, NELL-1, that both prevents further bone loss and builds new bone. Soo and her team have developed NELL-1 into a systemic therapy that can be given as an injection, which could provide tremendous benefit to the millions of people with osteoporosis.
“What is really remarkable about the space station is that the process of bone loss is significantly accelerated in microgravity, so the ISS represented a perfect opportunity to test our NELL-1 osteo-inductive molecule. Also, the whole process of conducting an experiment on the space station made our overall therapeutic development much more rigorous. Being part of an ISS project elevated our NELL-1 project in terms of systemic delivery for osteoporosis to make it much more feasible and translatable to the clinic.” —Chia Soo, University of California, Los Angeles
Brian York and his team are studying how disruption in circadian rhythm, the 24-hour cycle that controls biological function, and circatidal rhythm, a 12-hour oscillation of genes involved in metabolism (the process of breaking down food into energy), impact the body’s ability to maintain normal metabolic function. York and his team are examining circatidal gene expression in mouse tissues under the stress of spaceflight, which could provide insight into the treatment of metabolic disorders.
“We began our journey with ground-based research to understand circadian inputs to metabolic homeostasis. We uncovered that in addition to the circadian clock, there is a circatidal clock that operates on a 12-hour oscillation and has implications for stress responses, and so that created a unique opportunity for us to exploit the ISS as a unique environment and stress for which there is no evolutionary pressure to prepare the system.”—Brian York, Baylor College of Medicine
Tympanogen has developed a novel wound healing patch containing a hydrogel with antimicrobial properties that both promotes healing and acts as a scaffold for tissue regeneration. Elaine Horn-Ranney and her team are using the microgravity environment of the space station to study the behavior of the hydrogel and its controlled release from the patch.
“Through our flight experiment, we're looking at how microgravity affects the structure of these gels and the bulk release of these drugs, so we can take a look at very basic material behavior. The goal for us is to start toward the development of a wound healing model by understanding these material behaviors, but the data that we’re collecting will contribute to the overall knowledge base that other investigators can use in the future as well. So one thing that’s driving us with this project is not just to meet our own goals, but also inspiring other investigators to use the data we collect in ways we never expected.”—Elaine Horn-Ranney, Tympanogen
The ISS National Lab and NCATS partnered for a funding opportunity focused on human physiology and disease onboard the ISS National Lab featuring tissue chips, also called organs-on-chips. Tissue chips model the detailed physical structure of human tissue using cells grown on an artificial scaffold, enabling higher-accuracy disease modeling and drug testing.
“One of the big payouts that we see from using station to do this research is not only the scientific side, but also the technical side. Tissue chips may be very small, about the size of a USB stick, but they might need something the size of a kitchen refrigerator to supply the computing needs, fluids, pumps, incubators, and refrigerators, and you can’t send something that size to support one chip on station. We’ve been pushing our teams to adapt their systems, working with the implementation partners, who are doing an amazing job of taking something that was the size of a refrigerator and turning it into something the size of a shoebox and making it automated and very plug-and-play. That, in turn, is going to translate back down to the enhanced utility of tissue chips on Earth so we can start doing precision medicine with this technology."—Lucie Low, NIH-NCATS