UF tissue chip experiment to study age-related muscle loss aboard International Space Station

An out-of-this-world mission may help University of Florida researchers understand why adults lose muscle strength as they age. Tiny muscle cells contained on tissue chips are part of an innovative experiment bound for the International Space Station this week.

The study, led by Siobhan Malany, Ph.D., an associate professor of pharmacodynamics in the UF College of Pharmacy, will help scientists understand microgravity effects on human muscle cells and could aid the development of new therapies for age-related muscle loss on Earth.

Malany Tissue Chip Experiment
The miniaturized laboratory plugs into the International Space Station and allows scientists to study live human cells in space.

Sarcopenia, a condition associated with muscle loss, primarily affects adults over 65 and leads to a higher risk of fall, fractures and mobility problems. A rapidly expanding population of older adults is expected to intensify the health problems associated with the condition. Exercise is considered the primary treatment for sarcopenia, as there are no approved drug therapies.

“Astronauts experience extreme muscle weakness in space, and similar muscle changes occur when people age on Earth, although at a much slower pace,” Malany said. “If you study age-related incidences, you have to look over many years to see changes. In space, the microgravity effect accelerates muscle mass changes. Our experiment should provide some great insight into muscle cell biology and why tissues respond differently in space.”

The rocket carrying UF’s laboratory will launch at 11:39 a.m., Saturday, Dec. 5, from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, for Space X’s 21st Commercial Resupply Services Mission. The experiment will run for 14 days in space, while the laboratory is expected to spend a month aboard the International Space Station. The muscle cells will be preserved in a special liquid once the experiment concludes, so scientists can complete gene expression analysis when the chips return to Earth.

Space Tango, a company that enables research and development and manufacturing in space, worked with Malany’s team to design and build a miniaturized laboratory, which plugs into the International Space Station and allows scientists to study live human cells in space. The shoebox-sized lab features an automated tissue chip system, which feeds nutrients to 3D muscle bundles four times a day. Tiny electrodes built into the chips allow scientists to study muscle contractions, while a microscope camera system moves on a rail above the chips collecting images and data.

The experiment revolves around 16 skeletal muscle cells loaded onto the chips. Half the cells were biopsied from a young cohort under 40, while the other half were collected from adults over 60. Additionally, half the cells in each group will receive electronic stimulation prompting muscle contractions, while the others will not.

Siobhan Malany
Dr. Siobhan Malany

“We want to see if there is a difference between young and old cells over time and compare how the cells react to electronic stimulation,” said Shelby Giza, a biological scientist in the UF College of Pharmacy and project manager for the space research mission. “When the cells return from space, we’ll run the same experiment on the ground, so we can compare results between Earth and microgravity.”

More than 18 months of planning and design propelled UF scientists and their engineering partners to this week’s launch. Malany also relied upon experience gained from two previous space missions in 2014 and 2018. She said the latest experiment is designed better and smarter than the most recent trip to the International Space Station, which also featured a lab-on-a-chip research experiment.

“I feel like we have put together something impactful,” Malany said. “We’ve designed a completely automated, miniaturized laboratory that fits in a shoebox, and it’s going to be exciting to watch our research liftoff here in Florida.”

Malany’s tissue chip research is funded by the National Institutes of Health and the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory under contract with NASA. The project was supported by multiple partners, including AdventHealth, Micro-gRx Inc., Micro Areospace Solutions and the UF Department of Biomedical Engineering.