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Leveraging Life Sciences Research On the International Space Station

by Patrick O’Neill


During the construction phase of the International Space Station (ISS), the facility was billed as the ultimate learning platform—capable of enabling technologies and discoveries not possible through ground-based experimentation. Roughly four years ago, the space station was officially completed, finally allowing researchers access to this unique environment for experimentation. At that time, the U.S. Congress recognized the need to “open the doors” of the ISS to researchers that otherwise might never have assumed microgravity research offered an opportunity to enhance their R&D goals, and declared the U.S. portion of the station a National Laboratory. And because flight and crew time are assumed, researchers are provided with access to microgravity at a fraction of the cost. With such incentives, it is no coincidence that a litany of major commercial companies and innovative startups are utilizing the station for experimentation to enhance technologies that have the capacity to change the way we view the world.

So what types of research are taking place on the station that have the potential to yield future results? Everything from flame retardant textiles research intent on improving fabrics worn by fire fighters, first responders, and military personnel to a rodent research habitat that offers life science investigators the ability to study the effects of microgravity on model organisms in order to improve the potency of therapeutics for humans on Earth. Essentially, the station is open to the most basic of research, as well as extreme inquiries that most would never think possible.

Additive Manufacturing Facility (3-D printing in space)

In 2014, NASA partnered with a Silicon Valley startup, Made In Space, to develop and send a test validation 3-D printer to the ISS. While 3-D printing has emerged as a useful tool for researchers and students alike on Earth, there were questions regarding whether such a device would function in the same manner in microgravity. After a series of initial tests, it was concluded that the test model proved 3-D printing in microgravity to be effective, and a new printer was manifested for flight. However, this printer would have uses beyond those of just NASA.

Made In Space has now launched its own printer to the station, and while NASA will still be able to leverage this device, so will commercial and student users of the station. For example, imagine a life science researcher sending an investigation to the ISS and receiving real time data. Then, instead of having that research come back to Earth, evaluating it in lab settings, and waiting for another iteration of the research to be launched a year or two later, the potential now exists for a new hardware device to be printed onto the station based on initial results or needs, thereby helping the researcher conduct further experimentation and accelerating the potential for discovery. Student researchers could also build tools and/or hardware for cube satellite deployment. Even commercial companies leveraging the space station will be able to develop tools and devices created in space.

Organ-On-Chip Research

Many researchers are familiar with how human conditions change in a microgravity environment. Without the constant variable of gravity, bones and muscles deteriorate rapidly, which is one of the reasons why astronauts on the space station are required to work out 2-3 hours daily to keep their bodies in nominal shape. In the past year, a variety of rodent research investigations have launched to the station looking at muscle wasting and bone density loss. The concept is fairly basic—if the human aging condition is affected greatly through microgravity, then a rodent or other model organization that has a much more limited lifespan would also be accelerated, allowing researchers to equally accelerate the ability to test and/or develop therapies to counteract the aging process on the ground.


ISS crewmembers work together during an Integrated Immune Study blood sample draw at the Human Research Facility (HRF). Photo courtesy of NASA.

What if we were able to get real-time data through similar inquiries? That is what organ-on-chip opportunities can provide researchers, offering insight into 3-D cell structures in microgravity or addressing challenges during drug development, or potentially advancing tissue engineering for regenerative medicine to benefit human disease research on Earth.

External Platform for Materials Research Investigation

When you think of research taking place on the ISS, you typically imagine it happening inside the station. But what if researchers had the ability to access the outside of the station and the extreme environment of space? Through the ISS National Lab and space hardware company NanoRacks, investigators now have that option. Throughout 2016, a variety of materials research experiments will make use of the NanoRacks External Platform, providing new ways of testing materials and products for durability in harsh elements under conditions not possible on Earth. From computer radiation testing and evaluating materials degradation, to assessing cost-effective, energy-efficient photovoltaic cells made of lightweight carbon nanotubes through the external platform, microgravity offers researchers another way to better understand products and/or concepts.

As some of these hardware facilities and research capabilities are further exploited through the ISS National Laboratory, it will promote the notion that there truly is nothing you can’t examine on the space station, opening more doors for experimentation, and hopefully, an explosion of opportunity and excitement among the life sciences research community.

Patrick O’Neill is marketing and communications manager at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).

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For More Information

Twelve new ISS National Laboratory projects announced at the 2016 ISS R&D Conference

Funding Opportunity Slated for Human Physiology Research on the International Space Station

Center for the Advancement of Science in Space

Space Station Research and Technology

Beyond Earth