SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral this Saturday morning with the objective of transporting nearly 5,500 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) including a precious consignment of tiny bits of human organs. The SpaceX CRS-17 mission was originally set for early Friday morning Friday but is now expected to launch at 2:48 am on Saturday.
The special consignment is part of the Tissue Chips in Space Initiative, a collaboration between the National Institutes of Health and the ISS National Lab. This project is designed to aid observation of human biology in the unique environment of space , this frontier of medical knowledge is expected to help us combat disease here on Earth. When astronauts are exposed to the microgravity of the International Space Station, their bodies undergo changes. The human immune system gets confused, while bones and muscles atrophy. These physical changes are similar to aging on Earth, making space environment ideal for studying the process of aging. Instead of using astronauts as guinea pigs, scientists working on this projects are sending four miniature human organs on chips to the ISS as part of this latest mission.
Each chip contains human cells configured on a scaffold to model structure and function of different organs in human body viz. the blood-brain barrier, kidneys, lung and bone marrow and bone and cartilage, and are between a microscope slide and a cellphone in size. As microgravity triggers changes in human cells resembling accelerated disease progression and aging, studying these chips in space lets scientists observe variations in just a few weeks that would normally take months on Earth.
After about a month on the ISS , these chips will return to Earth for 18 months for possible drug therapies before heading back to the ISS for review of the effects in space.ISS National Lab’s deputy chief scientist Michael Roberts told Inverse, “The space environment has profound effects on humans, and when astronauts experience space for long periods of time, the sort of things that happen to them look a bit like the diseases that are important here on Earth. It’s cutting-edge science. The whole premise of tissue chips is that it enables us to not only better understand how diseases work in the body, but more importantly, it can help us understand what are the best therapeutic agents and medicines that we can use to combat that. For me, it all begins with the excitement of doing good science and utilizing the unique environment of space.”