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Chip Device to Test Gut Infections on Space Station

Tissue on intestine chip

Folds in tissue lining Emulate Inc. intestine chip (Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Emulate Inc.)

18 Dec. 2018. A device with human intestine tissue and cells will be launched into space to test effects of weightlessness on immune functions and bacterial infections in the gastrointestinal tract. The 4-year project is funded by a $2 million grant from National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, or NCATS, part of National Institutes of Health, awarded to the companies Emulate Inc. in Boston and Space Tango in Lexington, Kentucky.

Emulate Inc. licenses research by the Wyss Institute at Harvard University on chip devices with tissue and cells that simulate the functions of human organs. One of the organs-on-a-chip developed by Emulate is the intestine, which contains human cells recreating the human microbiome, including cells lining the intestine, cells from blood vessels like those found in the intestine, neurons or nerve cells, and immune cells from intestinal mucous membranes. The company says its intestine chip can be used to test for conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and infections.

The project aims to better understand effects of extended microgravity, or weightlessness, on the human gut, particularly on the microbiome. Emulate’s intestine chips will be sent to the International Space Station, where they will be installed and monitored in a lab built by Space Tango. The experiments are designed to gauge responses to disease-causing bacteria by immune functions in the intestine, without the benefits of probiotic bacteria. Intestine chips on the space station will capture data with imaging devices, with those data compared to similar chips on earth. A third partner on the project is the company IRPI in Portland, Oregon that develops microfluidic devices for space travel.

Last year, Emulate Inc. sent a chip device to measure blood-brain barrier functioning in microgravity that now resides in the Space Tango lab. As reported by Science & Enterprise in June 2017, that chip is assessing effects of microgravity, but also the extra G-forces experienced in liftoff, as well as hypoxia or lack of oxygen and increased stress of space flight on brain function. That project is also funded by NCATS.

Other organ chip experiments on the International Space Station include models of the human airway and bone marrow to learn more about mechanisms affecting infections during weightlessness and overall immune system health, in this case functions of the respiratory system under these conditions. These experiments were designed by researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the companies Space Technology Advanced Research Systems Inc. in Houston and SpacePharma Inc. in Courgenay, Switzerland.

In addition, chip devices are testing the effects of space flight on musculoskeletal functions after osteoarthritis and bone loss following trauma. Researchers from MIT and the company Techshot in Greenville, Indiana are using a tissue chip model of bone and cartilage to study the effects of different drugs to reduce bone loss and cartilage degeneration on earth as well as the International Space Station.

Still other experiments are testing effects of microgravity on the aging process, specifically loss of neurological and cardiovascular abilities, defects in bone healing, and changes in immune functions, developed by a team from University of California in San Francisco and Space Technology Advanced Research Systems. A separate project is evaluating kidney health in microgravity, already suspected of accelerating the risk of kidney disorders such as protein in urine and kidney stones, by researchers from University of Washington in Seattle and the company BioServe Space Technologies in Beltsville, Maryland.

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