Immune system function in the microgravity of space

Looking to the future, there are exciting plans to push the frontiers of human space exploration, sending astronauts deeper into the solar system than ever before. But before achieving a better understanding of the mysteries of the universe, crucial mysteries about how the human body responds to space environments need to be investigated.

Researchers Dan Huh, a bioengineer in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and G. Scott Worthen, a physician-scientist in neonatology at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, are developing a technology to better understand how microgravity—an environmental condition in which people and objects appear to be weightless—negatively affects immune system function.

Understanding this occurrence is particularly important in microgravity environments such as spacecrafts and the International Space Station (ISS), where pathogens such as infectious viruses, bacteria, and fungi are known to be present.

Huh and Worthen were recently awarded a $2 million grant co-sponsored by NASA, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at the National Institutes of Health. The funds will allow the researchers to engineer microphysiological systems, better known as “tissues-on-a-chip,” that model the human airway and bone marrow. Eventually, they hope to combine the models to emulate and understand the integrated immune responses of the human respiratory system in microgravity.

These chips will be launched to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX rocket—once in 2019 and again in 2021—to allow the researchers to see how the tissues respond to infections in the microgravity environment.

Huh has been working on this “tissue-on-a-chip” technology since it was first pioneered at Harvard. He and his team designed a microfluidic device in which they cultured lung and capillary cells on either side of a porous membrane and stretched them to mimic breathing in the lung.

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