Heart tissue chips sent to space

International Space Station Cropped

NAVS has long supported research efforts utilizing human-relevant models, such as tissue chips, which are designed to replicate the structure and function of human tissues and organs. These chips also have the potential to reduce, and even replace, the need for animal testing in many areas of research.

While experimentation with these devices is making incredible progress here on Earth, exciting research using tissue chips continues to take place high above our planet.

The Tissue Chips in Space initiative, a collaboration between the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS) and NASA, began about three years ago to understand how microgravity affects the human body. Animals have typically been sent to space for these kinds of experiments, so it is encouraging to see the use of sophisticated, human-relevant alternatives.

This March, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Washington sent heart muscle tissue chips to the microgravity environment of the International Space Station to better understand the impact of spaceflight on the heart.

There is evidence that spaceflight has a negative impact on the heart and cardiovascular system, and that it can accelerate the aging process. Because humans may spend longer periods of time in space in the future, there is great interest in better understanding the effect of spaceflight on the heart. Such studies may also help the millions of people on Earth that have heart disease.

Researchers developed a three-dimensional microphysiological model of human cardiac muscle from human induced pluripotent stem cells. The tissues will be studied in the International Space Station for one month, and then compared to identical cardiac tissue on Earth. Researchers will look for differences in gene expression as well as changes in contraction due to microgravity.

The results of this study will inform future research designed to test a variety of drugs and their ability to mitigate the harmful effects of microgravity on heart function, which is set to take place in about two years.

NAVS is encouraged to see human-relevant tissue chips being used to answer scientific questions in space and is very interested in continuing to fund the use of these tools back on Earth. Through the International Foundation for Ethical Research, NAVS has supported the development of several tissue chips and would like to be able to fund even more research using these tools during the upcoming grant cycle, which is accepting pre-proposal applications through the end of April.

If you know of any graduate student researchers who are developing alternatives to the use of animals in science, please let them know of this important funding opportunity.

And if you would like to help fund the development of human-relevant alternatives that can replace the use of animals in science, please make a donation today.


“Little tissue, big mission: Beating heart tissues to ride aboard the ISS,” EurekAlert! March 2020.