New Space and Tech

Engineered Cardiac Tissues to Fly on NG-18 to Advance Treatments for Heart Disease

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
October 26, 2022
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Engineered Cardiac Tissues to Fly on NG-18 to Advance Treatments for Heart Disease
Heart cells derived from human stem cells stained for muscle protein (green) and nuclei (blue). CREDIT: Image courtesy of Parvin Forghani, PhD, Emory University larger image

Heart disease may be the leading cause of death in the United States, but researchers from Emory University are working toward a solution. The research team will leverage the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory to examine how microgravity affects the growth and function of cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells) into tissue-like structures. Findings will help advance cardiac disease modeling and could lead to the development of new therapies to treat heart disease in patients on Earth.

The project, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and supported by ISS National Laboratory, will launch on Northrop Grumman’s 18th Commercial Resupply Services mission.

Scientists hypothesize that in the absence of gravity, cardiac cells will grow differently, which could lead to advancements essential for use in regenerative medicine, disease modeling, and the development of more effective drugs. To that end, Chunhui Xu, a professor in the department of pediatrics at Emory University, proposes studying how cardiac myocytes derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) grow in microgravity.

“These types of cells can be used to replace damaged cells in patients with heart disease,” Xu said. “However, stem cell-derived cardiac cells are immature compared to the same cells in our bodies; they’re more like fetal or embryonic cardiac cells.”

Xu says that more mature cells are needed to transplant into patients with heart disease because by transplanting immature cells into patients, there is an increased risk of complications like arrhythmia. To that end, Xu’s investigation will focus on the maturation of stem cell-derived cardiac muscle cells into microtissues. She says the key to producing more mature cells is understanding how they grow and function—and the best place to do that is on the ISS. That is because exposure and growth of the cells into microtissues in microgravity is expected to reduce tension between cells and improve the tissue architecture.

“Microgravity is really amazing; the cells can sense what kind of environment they’re in and adapt to it,” Xu said. “As such, the ISS provides a unique environment that’s perfect for helping us discover new things that aren’t possible anywhere else.”

According to Xu, the cells launching on NG-18 will be cryopreserved until they reach the ISS, where they will be thawed and allowed to mature for an estimated seven days. Then the resulting tissues will be preserved and returned to Earth for analysis.

NG-18 is targeted for launch from Wallops Island no earlier than November 6 at 5:50 a.m. EDT. This mission will include more than 20 ISS National Lab-sponsored payloads.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.