Engineered Cardiac Tissues to Fly on Northrup Resupply Mission

The project hopes to advance treatments for heart disease.

Heart cells derived from human stem cells stained for muscle protein (green) and nuclei (blue).
Heart cells derived from human stem cells stained for muscle protein (green) and nuclei (blue).
Parvin Forghani, PhD, Emory University

Heart disease may be the leading cause of death in the United States, but researchers from Emory University are working toward a solution. The team will leverage the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory to continue research examining how microgravity affects the growth and function of cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells) as they mature 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.

In the absence of gravity, cardiac cells grow differently, which could lead to valuable advancements in regenerative medicine, disease modeling and the development of more effective drugs. 

Chunhui Xu, a professor in the department of pediatrics at Emory University, is studying how cardiomyocytes derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) grow in microgravity. The project, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and sponsored by the ISS National Lab, will launch on Northrop Grumman's 19th Commercial Resupply Services mission and builds on previous research from Xu and her team.

"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 cells that are more mature are needed to transplant into patients with heart disease because when immature cells are transplanted, 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 ideal place to do that is on the space station. That is because growing 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 this mission will be cryopreserved until they reach the space station, where they will be thawed and allowed to mature for an estimated seven days. Then, the resulting microtissues will be preserved and returned to Earth for analysis. Findings will provide the research team with better insight into microgravity’s effects on cardiac function.

The mission is targeted for launch from Wallops Flight Facility no earlier than August 1 at 8:31 p.m. EDT. This mission will include more than 20 ISS National Lab-sponsored payloads.

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