On May 6, the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft docked to the International Space Station to deliver 5,500 pounds of cargo, including bits of human organs.
Scientists sent four tissue chips to the orbiting laboratory, each containing cells designed to mimic different parts of the body. The effort is part of the initiative called Tissue Chips in Space to study human biology in the unique environment of space and translate the findings to improve human health on Earth.
The Human Body In Microgravity
The bodies of astronauts stationed at the ISS significantly change after spending six months in microgravity. Space alters their immune systems and causes their bones and muscles to atrophy, changes that are often associated with the onset and progression of diseases, as well as aging.
Moreover, these changes occur quicker than on Earth. Processes that would usually take place over several months inside a regular laboratory would happen across a few weeks in space.
Tissue Chips As Miniature Human Organs
Instead of sending humans to space for the study, scientists opted to use tissue chips, which are three-dimensional models that mimic the structure and function of certain body organs. The four tissue chips launched to low-orbit earlier this month serve as models for kidney, the blood-brain barrier, bone and cartilage, and lung and bone marrow.
The last one specifically was designed to study infections in humans.
"The whole premise of tissue chips is that it enables us to not only better understand how diseases work in the body," explained Michael Roberts, the deputy chief scientist at the ISS National Lab, in statement to Inverse, "but more importantly, it can help us understand what are the best therapeutic agents and medicines that we can use to combat that."
The four tissue chips that are already at the ISS will be used to observe how human cells change while in microgravity. Next month, when the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft undocks, it will bring the technology back to Earth for scientists to analyze.
The second mission planned 18 months later will take the tissue chips back to the orbiting laboratory, this time to test potential drug therapies on the changes that might have occurred to the human cells while in microgravity.
"Taking this technology into space is an unprecedented opportunity to use tissue chips for accelerating translational development of interventions for use here on earth to treat many aging-related diseases," stated Danilo Tagle, the associate director of the project at the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.