ISS - International Space Station logo.
Oct. 11, 2016
What goes up must come down, the saying goes. Sometimes, what comes down goes up again. That is true for several science investigations on the International Space Station, which led to advances on Earth that will be applied in new ways back in space.
Researchers studied the principles of capillary flow and mechanical forces in the low-gravity environment aboard the station. Back on Earth, that knowledge is being applied to design systems for performing various tests of human health. That work in turn may help advance future human space exploration.
One of Emulate’s Organ-Chip devices. Image Credit: Emulate
Capillary forces involve movement of liquid due not to gravity, but interactions between the molecules of the liquid, and between it and a surface such as a container (think of dipping a paper towel in water). In microgravity, capillary forces are more difficult to control on a larger scale, which presents challenges for handling liquid propellants, thermal control, wastewater management and recycling in space.
Three investigations – CFE, CFE2, and CCF – each examined capillary flows in space to help improve design of these systems. A related investigation looked at wetting – a liquid’s ability to spread across a surface – along significant distances and in unusual container shapes in microgravity.
“Through these investigations, we have learned how to make liquids behave, to go where we want them to go, using passive forces of wetting and surface tension,” said Mark Weislogel, principal investigator for three of the experiments. “Control the container shape, and you can exploit those forces to make all the liquid go where you want and to keep air and liquid in the right place.”
This work inspired the formation of IRPI, an Oregon-based research and development firm specializing in fluid-thermal engineering solutions for aerospace, biomedical, and energy applications. Weislogel serves as vice president and senior scientist at the company.
Now, IRPI is helping to apply those lessons learned in space to a technology developed on Earth by Emulate, Inc. The technology, referred to as a ‘Human Emulation System,’ offers researchers a living biological platform that can be used for predicting human response to diseases, medicines, chemicals and foods. The system includes Organ-Chips, which are micro-engineered environments lined with specific, living human cells and tissues such as lung, liver, brain or kidney. Each chip’s tiny channels reproduce blood and air flow and recreate natural physiology and mechanical forces that cells experience within the human body.
Image above: Capillary forces at work in an investigation on the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA.
A major challenge with many such micro-engineered systems, however, is controlling the movement and integrity of the liquid. The capillary and wetting investigations in space have been extremely useful in addressing this challenge.
“The people at IRPI are experts at fluid mass transport and how to apply it, and we benefit from their insight into how to more precisely control the biological and biochemical microenvironment inside our Organ-Chips,” said Chris Hinojosa, associate director of discovery at Emulate.
After this science went up into space and came back down to Earth, it now may have new applications back in space.
“The collaboration with IRPI provides an exciting opportunity to use our technology for predicting how different factors – such as varying mechanical forces, inflammation, air quality or radiation – may affect the health of astronauts in the space environment,” Hinojosa said.
“Imagine putting an astronaut’s own cells on one of these chips outside the station or on a probe to Mars,” Weislogel said. “You can, in effect, expose someone to life-threatening conditions and see how they respond without actually putting them in harm’s way.”
Image above: Astronaut Cady Coleman conducting a capillary flow investigation aboard the space station Image Credit: NASA.
Emulate is at the early stages of taking an individual patient’s stem cells and differentiating them to create personalized Organ-Chips for precision medicine and personal health applications on Earth, Hinojosa said, and this collaboration could be used to extrapolate that process into using cells from an astronaut.
“One thing we think is powerful is that you can do experiments on these living systems, these personalized human Organ-Chips, that you wouldn’t be able to conduct on an actual human,” Hinojosa said. “We also can look at response to injury or invasion by, say, lunar-dust, bacteria or virus in real-time, or begin to design individualized drugs and preventative health programs.”
Emulate’s adaptation of the Organ-Chips platform for future research investigations on the space station will further improve its products on Earth.
“Learning something like how to ship this living system up to the space station and conduct automated experiments without affecting the biology will really help us as we begin shipping our lab-ready research products all over the world,” Hinojosa said. “NASA’s expertise on logistics and materials offers a wealth of new information and thinking and, in turn, we can be useful to them in a number of ways, such as providing a new biological platform that can enable a new era of research on human health in space.”
Intenational Space Station (ISS). Image Credit: NASA
The back and forth – or in this case, up and down – creates great potential.
“We know how to control fluids, especially at microscale,” said IRPI president Ryan Jenson. “Emulate really understands the science and NASA understands the impacts of testing in space. As a result, we have fundamental science from space applied in terrestrial fields, then that same technology taken back to space to learn more about astronaut health. Everybody wins.”
Capillary flow experiment
Investigation – CFE: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/978.html
Investigation – CFE2: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/459.html
Investigation – CCF: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/303.html
Emulate, Inc.: https://emulatebio.com/
Space Station Research and Technology: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/index.html
International Space Station (ISS): http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html
Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/JSC/Melissa Gaskill/Kristine Rainey.
Best regards, Orbiter.ch