In early May, mini 3-D models of the lung, kidney, blood-brain barrier and bone-cartilage were blasted into space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on their way to the International Space Station. These organs on computer-like chips will be exposed to microgravity for two weeks and will undergo experiments that could help us understand osteoarthritis, infections, brain diseases, kidney malfunction and more. Sounds like science fiction, but it’s not.
This cutting-edge research is part of National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences’ (NCATS) Tissue Chips in Space Initiative which aims to advance the understanding of many diseases through unusual conditions in space.
NASA has learned a lot about what happens to human health in space over the years, and it is paying off here on earth. They’ve learned that astronauts actually age – their muscles and bones atrophy in space – but return to normal once back to earth. This means in a short amount of time in space, researchers can gain much more information about what happens to human tissue and function longer term.
Human tissue chips have enormous potential to change the way science is done and to speed it up. They allow researchers to test the safety and effectiveness of multiple drugs before being tested on humans. Right now, animal models are used to test drug treatments, but tissue chips appear to be more accurate than animal models for understanding the risks or promise of a new drug candidate and could complement or ultimately replace animal testing.
There is a reason why speeding up research is critical. Christopher Austin, M.D, director of NCATS, says, “Ninety-five percent of the diseases we know of do not yet have treatments, such as Alzheimer’s Disease and ALS. The time it takes to develop a new treatment is too long, the cost is too high, and the rate of success is too low. We want to work faster and smarter to meet this incredible need.”
NCATS, a center within the National Institutes of Health, was created to try and improve the process of how science is done. Brilliant, creative scientists around the world are working to make people healthier, but they’re held back by outdated tools, an overload of paperwork, and slow science. These innovative tissue chips are one answer to this challenge. They allow researchers to be able to test multiple drugs on human tissue to move quickly to clinical human trials to find the best treatment and ultimately get it to the patients.
Austin says, “For those suffering from any of the thousands of conditions for which we have no treatment, we can’t move fast enough. This isn’t acceptable, and our goal is to improve the odds of a healthier America.”