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When astronauts spend time in the low-gravity environment of space, they rapidly lose bone, muscle and immune function — all of which happens commonly but slowly with age here on Earth. Equally intriguing, these changes reverse when the astronauts return to Earth. Microgravity thus provides a unique environment that could help us understand and develop new treatments for diseases of aging. Last month, through its Tissue Chips in Space initiative, NCATS took a giant leap toward this vision with an out-of-this-world mission that carried human immune system chips to the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. As I write this message, astronauts are performing experiments with these chips aboard the ISS, and they will bring the chips back to earth and to the NCATS-supported researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, for analysis later this month. Two additional planned launches in 2019 will ferry chips modeling other organs and tissues to the ISS. Go with us on this voyage via this very cool video and podcast on the program from our partners at NASA.
We’re bringing the same intrepid NCATS approach to the NIH HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-term℠) Initiative, NIH’s aggressive effort to speed scientific solutions to stem the national opioid public health crisis. Among our many HEAL-related efforts, last month NCATS issued challenge prize competitions for an innovative translational science platform called A Specialized Platform for Innovative Research Exploration (ASPIRE), which will explore a different kind of space — the chemical space of potential new drugs — to jump-start the discovery of new drugs for pain, addiction and overdose.
I’m also delighted to report that NCATS is filling a space later this month, when we welcome Joni Rutter, Ph.D., as our new deputy director. Joni is currently director of scientific programs at NIH’s All of Us Research Program, an historic effort to build a national research cohort of 1 million or more U.S. participants to advance precision medicine. Here at NCATS, she will be responsible for planning, executing and assessing the Center’s complex and multifaceted pre-clinical and clinical programs and will be a key national spokesperson for translational science.
The year 2019 is shaping up to be monumental for NCATS! I look forward to sharing our progress with you as we go where no one has gone before to improve health through smarter science.
Christopher P. Austin, M.D.
National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences