NASA plans to ship small devices containing human cells to the International Space Station (ISS) in a 3D matrix, known as tissue chips or organs on the chip, and test how they respond to stress, drugs and genetic change.
Made of flexible plastic, the tissue chips have holes and channels that provide them with nutrients and oxygen.
The "Tissue Chips in Space" initiative aims to better understand the role of microgravity in human health and disease and to translate this understanding to improve human health on Earth, NASA said.
"Spaceflight causes many significant changes in the human body," says Liz Warren, Associate Program Scientist at the CASIS in the US.
"We expect the tissue chips in the universe to behave similar to the astronaut's body, they are experiencing the same rapid change," Warren said.
The US space agency is planning an investigation in collaboration with CASIS and the National Center for Advanced Translation Science (NCATS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Many changes in the human body caused by microgravity resemble the onset and development of diseases associated with aging on Earth, such as bone and muscle loss. But the changes to the universe appear much faster.
This means scientists can use space chips to model the changes they may have on earth for months or years.
This first phase of tissue chips in space involves five investigations. An Immature Immune System Investigation is scheduled for launch on SpaceX CRS-16, scheduled for this year.
The other four, scheduled to launch on the SpaceX CRS-17 spacecraft or in later years, include defense of the lung host, haemoencephalic barrier, musculoskeletal and renal function.
In addition, four other projects are planned to be launched in the summer of 2020, two of which are at the heart of the engine to understand cardiovascular health, one on muscle loss and the other on intestinal inflammation.
Also called the microphysiological system, the tissue chip needs three main features, says Lucie Low, a leading science program at the National Center for the Development of Translating Sciences in the US.
"It must be 3D because people are 3D," she explained.
"They must have multiple types of cells because the organ is made up of all sorts of tissues and must have microfluidic channels, because each tissue in the body has a vasculature that delivers blood and nutrients and removes detritus," she added.
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