Tissue Chips in Space

The International Space Station

The International Space Station. (NASA Photo)

NCATS has partnered with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to collaborate on refining tissue chip technology for biomedical research use at the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory (ISS-NL).

Translational research at the ISS-NL provides unprecedented opportunities to study the effects of a microgravity environment on the human body. For example, it is now widely known that symptoms of accelerated aging occur after prolonged exposure to microgravity (diminished or close to zero gravity compared to Earth). Health concerns that resemble aging — such as muscle deterioration, osteoporosis (bone loss), reduced cardiopulmonary function and immune deficiency — when in space have been documented, and it also has been observed that these conditions are reversible when astronauts return to Earth. Tissue chip applications at the ISS-NL will enable studies of organs at the cell and tissue levels under reduced gravity, will contribute to our understanding of the process of aging and could reveal molecular targets that can slow that process.


NCATS’ Dr. Danilo Tagle in a space suit.

NCATS’ Associate Director of Special Initiatives Dr. Danilo Tagle, who heads NCATS’ Tissue Chip for Drug Screening program, tries on an astronaut space suit at the BIO conference in San Francisco in June 2016, ahead of a joint funding venture announcement between NCATS and the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). (CASIS Photo)

In October 2016, CASIS and NCATS, through the NCATS Tissue Chip for Drug Screening program, announced a funding opportunity to leverage recent tissue engineering and microfabrication advances to create tissue- and organ-on-chip platforms that mimic human physiology under the extreme environment of space. The goal of the Tissue Chips in Space initiative is to create tissue- and organ-on-chip platforms that can be sent to the ISS-NL so that scientists can better understand the role of microgravity on human health and diseases and translate those findings to improve human health on Earth.

In June 2017, NCATS issued five initial two-year awards for up to a total of about $6 million in response to a funding opportunity to use tissue chip technology for translational research onboard the ISS-NL for the benefit of human health on Earth. CASIS is providing approximately $8 million in in-kind support.

In November 2017, NCATS issued a funding opportunity for tissue- and organ-on-chip research at the ISS-NL to study human physiology and disease. Data from this research will help scientists develop and advance novel technologies to improve human health.

During the first phase of the Tissue Chips in Space initiative, researchers will develop and test tissue chips on the ISS-NL in a microgravity environment. In the second phase, they will further demonstrate the functional use of the tissue chip models for more defined experiments on the ISS-NL.

Tissue chip developers will team with CASIS space implementers to achieve the National Aeronautics and Space Administration flight qualification requirements, payload development and pre- and post-flight analyses. NCATS anticipates that applications will need to demonstrate a multidisciplinary approach that brings together experts in areas such as bioengineering, fluid control, novel materials design, genomics, computational biology, disease biology, pathology, electrophysiology, pharmacology, biostatistics and clinical science. For details, visit the CASIS Tissue Chip blogspot.