Human Tissue on Chips Sent to Space


Tissue chips with a small network of cells have been sent to ISS to determine how space affects the human body. Using the latest tissue chip technology, the biomedical research mission called the Tissue Chips in Space initiative and spearheaded by the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS).  


NCATS partnered with the ISS National Laboratory to send tissue chips, a highly specialised technology that reflects the human body. The US portion of the ISS will be used for such research initiatives.


“Research on the ISS National Lab is creating unprecedented opportunities for scientists to study microgravity-induced changes in human physiology relevant to diseases here on Earth, as well as to accelerate the development of translational technologies for earthly applications,” said NCATS Director Christopher P. Austin. “NCATS’ research carried on today’s launch will not only contribute valuable knowledge on the aging process but also may reveal new approaches to ameliorating the effects of aging.”


As part of the Tissue Chips in Space initiative, researches at the University of California, San Francisco, developed an immune system chip, which will allow them to take a closer look at the relationship between aging and immune responses – and possibly at the ways to slow the aging process.  


Astronauts in space experience accelerated aging that consists of physiological changes such as bone loss, muscle deterioration, reduced cardiopulmonary function and immune deficiency. The changes are attributed to prolonged exposure to microgravity. When they return to Earth, these changes are often reversed. The chips will allow scientists to take a look at these changes on a cellular level to understand the process of aging and translate these findings into improving human health on Earth.


Each chip is similar to a human organ, mimicking actual human tissues and cells. An immune system chip, for example, has three types of cells – the specific immune cell itself, the cells from bone marrow, which create immune cells, and cells from blood vessel lining, where immune cells encounter infection. A few dozen of these immune chips systems will stay in an incubator on the ISS. In two weeks, they will be frozen and preserved, and later returned to Earth for analysis.


“By sending our immune chips into space, we’ll be able simulate the aging process of the immune system and understand how it affects our body’s ability to repair itself as we grow older,” said Sonja Schrepfer, professor of surgery at UCSF and co-developer of the immune system chip.


More chips are scheduled for March and April 2019. In March, the chips launched will mimic the bone and cartilage, the kidneys, as well as the blood-brain barrier. In April, chips systems mimicking the lung chip connected to a bone marrow chip will go up in space to help scientists study infections.


“We expect this research to give scientists new insights into the molecular basis for many human conditions, which in this particular project relates to how microgravity induces aging of the immune system that may lead to the development of novel therapies here on Earth,” said Danilo Tagle, NCATS acting deputy director and associate director for special initiatives.


 Photo credit: Wyss Institute