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Immune Cell Chips to Launch into Space for Microgravity Tests

Astronaut with tissue chip

Astronaut holding earlier kidney tissue chip (NASA)

5 Dec. 2018. Chip devices with human immune system and stem cells are among the cargo set for launch today to the International Space Station. The devices are designed to test the effects weightlessness on immune system cells, which also serve as a model for the aging process.

The devices were developed in the Transplant and Stem Cell Immunobiology Lab at University of California in San Francisco, led by surgery professor Sonja Schrepfer. The project, funded by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, or NCATS, part of National Institutes of Health, seeks to track changes in immune system cells and their functioning in weightless conditions, known as microgravity. The chips will reside at the International Space Station for a month, where they will measure aspects of immunosenescence, disruptions in the immune system, similar to those faced by people as they age.

Schrepfer’s lab, with colleagues from the company Space Technology and Advanced Research Systems Inc. that develops life science research technology for space travel, built the three-dimensional tissue chips with T-cells from the immune system, as well as bone-marrow stem cells and endothelial progenitor cells that transform into the lining of blood vessels. This collection of cells are expected to provide evidence of changes in bone healing and regeneration of blood vessels similar to changes experienced in the aging process.

The tissue chips are among the cargo in today’s launch, the 16th commercial resupply mission by the company SpaceX, under contract to NASA. The chips are among 20 scientific inquiries aboard the SpaceX Falcon rocket to be launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Upon arrival at the International Space Station, the chips will be placed in an incubator for 2 weeks, then preserved by freezing until their return for analysis. The UC-San Francisco lab expects to study physiological and genomic factors in the chips’ cells after their return.

“Research on the ISS National Lab,” says NCATS director Christopher Austin in an NIH statement, “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.”

Schrepfer adds, “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.”

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