SpaceX’s 21st commercial resupply mission (CRS-21) to the International Space Station (ISS) is slated for launch no earlier than December 5 at 11:39 a.m. ET from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The ISS U.S. National Laboratory is sponsoring more than 15 payloads on this mission that will bring value to our nation and further enable a sustainable market in low Earth orbit. Many investigations included in this launch are in the areas of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, and results could provide insights that may lead to therapeutics capable of improving patient care on Earth and beyond. Additionally, this launch will feature multiple student experiments that will engage and excite the next generation of researchers and explorers.
Below are highlights of ISS National Lab-sponsored research and technology development investigations that are part of the SpaceX CRS-21 mission to the space station.
Cartilage-Bone-Synovium Microphysiological System
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Principal Investigator (PI): Dr. Alan Grodzinsky
This project will study the effects of spaceflight on musculoskeletal disease biology, specifically, post-traumatic osteoarthritis and bone loss using a tissue-on-a-chip cartilage-bone-synovium joint model. Post-traumatic osteoarthritis causes about 12% of osteoarthritis of the hip, knee, and ankle and is a common condition in otherwise healthy (young to middle-aged) individuals, affecting about 5.6 million people in the United States. This project represents a relevant human tissue-on-chip platform with the potential to provide several pharmacological treatment options for osteoarthritis patients. This is the second ISS National Lab investigation focused on this tissue-on-a-chip platform from MIT that resulted from a funding opportunity from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, one of the 27 institutes and centers at the National Institutes of Health.
Implementation Partner: Techshot, Inc.
Development of a Brain Organoid Model for Commercial Applications
University of California, San Diego
PI: Dr. Erik Virre
This project seeks to establish a brain organoid (a miniaturized and simplified organ) model for use on the ISS for discovery and personalized medicine applications. Developed from stem cells, these brain organoids will be gene-edited and used to study neurological diseases in microgravity. Such organoid models can aid in the study of diseases that represent a significant health burden such as autism and Alzheimer’s disease.
Implementation Partner: Space Tango
Effect of Microgravity on Drug Responses Using Engineered Heart Tissues
PI: Dr. Joseph Wu
This project seeks to examine microgravity’s effects on heart function using three-dimensional engineered heart tissues derived from human cells. Muscles, including the heart, can weaken in microgravity from disuse because they are not acting against gravity. The research team will evaluate whether engineered heart tissue in microgravity displays characteristics similar to ischemic cardiomyopathy (a condition in which heart muscles are weakened due to heart disease or a heart attack), for use in screening new potential drugs to treat heart conditions on Earth. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every four adult deaths in the U.S. (about 610,000 people) is due to heart disease. This investigation is funded through the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (one of 27 institutes and centers within the National Institutes of Health) Tissue Chips in Space collaboration with the ISS National Lab.
Implementation Partner: BioServe Space Technologies
Electrical Stimulation of Human Myocytes in Microgravity
University of Florida
PI: Dr. Siobhan Malany
This project seeks to develop a tissue chip system to culture and electrically stimulate human primary skeletal muscle cells from young and older adults in microgravity. Electrical stimulation causes muscle microtissues to contract, allowing the team to monitor muscle contraction rates. Physiological changes resulting in loss of muscle mass and strength occur about 10 times faster in microgravity than on Earth. The team’s tissue chip platform will serve as an advanced human cell culture system to study microgravity-induced physiological changes that mimic age-related muscle loss and to test therapeutics to treat muscle wasting. Understanding how to prevent and treat age-related muscle loss is a valuable research area, particularly given that the number of individuals in older populations continues to rise. There are currently not many treatments for age-related muscle loss, in part due to an incomplete understanding of the mechanisms involved in age-related skeletal muscle dysfunction. A 10% reduction in age-related muscle atrophy would save approximately $1.1 billion in annual healthcare costs and significantly improve quality of life for these patients. This investigation is funded through the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences Tissue Chips in Space collaboration with the ISS National Lab and builds on a previous tissue chip investigation launched to the orbiting laboratory.
Implementation Partner: Space Tango
Fiber Optics Manufacturing in Space: ZBLAN Fibers
PI: Dr. Dmitry Starodubov
This project seeks to demonstrate the technical and commercial feasibility of in-orbit manufacturing of optical ﬁbers for data transmission. Fluoride optical ﬁbers have demonstrated a 10- to 100-fold signal loss reduction compared with traditional silica optical ﬁbers, which could dramatically improve the cost and efﬁciency of communications systems and the internet. However, imperfections that occur during manufacturing on Earth prevent ﬂuoride optical ﬁbers from achieving this reduction in signal loss. Such imperfections appear to be reduced in microgravity, and this project will test ISS capabilities for in-orbit production of ZBLAN optical ﬁbers, a type of ﬂuoride optical ﬁbers.
Implementation Partner: FOMS, Inc.
Influence of Gravity on Human Immune Function in Adults and the Elderly
Sanofi Pasteur US
PI: Dr. Donald Drake III
This project seeks to gain a broad understanding of how gravity affects overall human immune function and potentially uncover novel pathways of immune function that can be exploited to develop better vaccines and immunobiologics for human use. The project will build on earlier studies that evaluated lymphocyte (a type of white blood cell) function in microgravity. The project will also evaluate whether gravity-regulated immune pathways are affected by age by examining cells from young adult and elderly donors in parallel. New insights into vaccine development provide opportunities to eradicate more diseases over time, providing significant savings to the healthcare system and improving quality of life.
Implementation Partner: BioServe Space Technologies
MDCK Influenza Virus Infection
PI: Dr. Patrick Farrell
In this project, Sanofi Pasteur seeks to grow MDCK (Madin-Darby Canine Kidney) cell cultures infected with the influenza virus in microgravity to explore the mechanisms involved in viral replication and production, with the ultimate goal of applying the results to Earth-based, cell-based manufacturing of influenza vaccines. The influenza virus is responsible for a global epidemic every year that infects millions of people and causes serious illness and death worldwide. Vaccination remains the primary and most effective strategy for the prevention and control of influenza. The ability to produce and supply vaccines that prevent influenza outbreaks has the potential to improve global health and save lives while also protecting against the associated economic losses.
Implementation Partner: Space Tango
Spherical Cool Diffusion Flames Burning Gaseous Fuels
University of Maryland College Park
PI: Dr. Peter Sunderland
This project seeks to increase fundamental understanding of the physics of cool diffusion flames (flames burning at temperatures below 400°C) by observing quasi-steady spherical flames on porous burners in microgravity. Cool diffusion flames were first observed in space during experiments onboard the ISS in 2012. Although cool diffusion had been observed in earlier drop tower experiments, cool flames had never been observed as steady spherical flames because drop tower experiments had uneven burn rates. Internal combustion engines burning fossil fuel power most of the world’s transportation and manufacturing, and most of these engines are designed for efficiency using computer models that neglect cool flame chemistry because the phenomenon is not well known or characterized. An improved understanding of combustion processes incorporating cool flame propagation will improve combustion engine efficiency and reduce emissions on Earth.
Implementation Partner: Zin Technologies
Structural and Crystallization Kinetics Analysis of Monoclonal Antibodies
Bristol Myers Squibb
PI: Dr. Robert Garmise
This investigation aims to utilize the ISS to crystallize monoclonal antibodies to gain a better understanding of both their crystallization kinetics in a microgravity environment and their structure, toward improving drug formulation and delivery. To be administered as an injection, as opposed to IV administration, monoclonal antibody drugs must be formulated in a crystalline suspension of highly ordered, uniform crystals. However, for many monoclonal antibodies, it is difficult to obtain uniform crystalline suspensions on Earth. Crystals grown in microgravity are often more well-ordered than Earth-grown crystals, and the research team seeks study crystallization conditions of monoclonal antibodies on the ISS to improve crystallization processes back on the ground.
Implementation Partner: University of Alabama Birmingham
Student Spaceflight Experiments Program
National Center for Earth and Space Science Education
PI: Dr. Jeff Goldstein
The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) was launched in 2010, providing students around the world the opportunity to send research experiments to the ISS. The program provides seamless integration across STEM disciplines through an authentic, high visibility research experience—an approach that embraces the Next Generation Science Standards. SSEP immerses hundreds of students at the local level in the research experience—students are truly given the ability to be real scientists and engineers. For this launch, 32 separate student investigations involving more than 16,000 students will fly to the orbiting laboratory, leveraging mixstix research testing tubes to examine topics from the physical and life sciences.
Implementation Partner: Nanoracks
Three-dimensional Microbial Mapping (3DMM) of ISS Environment
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
PI: Dr. Kasthuri Venkateswaran
This project seeks to analyze swab samples of 1,000 locations within the space station to explore the spatial relationship between bacteria and their metabolites (chemicals produced by their growth). The project will translate molecular information in high-spatial 3D resolution to understand the distribution of microbes and metabolites associated with the built environment of the ISS, a nearly closed ecosystem. Understanding the microbiome of built environments and how it affects human health is a growing field of research that is particularly important in hospitals, nursing homes, and places where people are immuno-compromised. This project includes the development of new technologies that will enhance pathogen detection capabilities onboard the ISS as well as on Earth, including hospitals, commercial airplanes, and other closed environments where pathogens thrive.
Implementation Partner: KBR
First the Seed Foundation
PI: Ann Jorss
Tomatosphere is an educational program started in 1999 in which students investigate how the space environment affects tomato plant growth. Each participating class is sent two packages of tomato seeds: one package of seeds that has been sent into space and one package of control seeds that have not been in space. Students and teachers compare the germination rates of the two groups of seeds, not knowing which seeds went to space and which are the control seeds. This project will provide transportation of 1.2 million seeds to and from the ISS (the seeds will remain in orbit between 10 and 60 days). The project will also include monitoring and data tracking (temperature, humidity, and pressure) for both the seeds sent to the ISS and the control seeds.
Implementation Partner: CASIS