Tissue Research from Wake Forest University Launched into Space
Researchers at Wake Forest University have a new far-out location for advancing their work with human organ tissues - the International Space Station.
When the Axiom Space Ax-2 mission launched on May 21, 2023, on board were liver and kidney tissue constructs developed by the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Researchers at the institute wanted to see how well the constructs vascularize, or develop blood vessels, in a microgravity environment.
WFIRM developed the tissue constructs by bioprinting them. The goal is to develop human organs for transplantation, helping more patients who need transplants but are on long waiting lists because of the shortage of donated organs.
“This launch marks an important next step for our regenerative medicine research related to vascularized tissue,” said Anthony Atala, MD, director of the institute. “This is an opportunity to develop an interim/early step toward creating solid tissues/partial organs for transplantation into patients in the future to address the organ shortage.”
From the Lab to the Human Body
The developing field of regenerative medicine holds promise for a broad range of applications, including replacement tissues and organs. WFIRM has staked out a leadership position in the field. The institute says its physicians and scientists were the first to develop laboratory-grown organs used successfully in human transplants.
On board the space station, the Axiom Space crew, with four private astronauts, studied the tissues during the 10-day mission, which concluded Tuesday night. Their work included evaluating the vascularization process of thick tissue as well as the effectiveness of the technology platform for developing other types of tissue.
Previous cell research conducted on the ISS involved 2D and small 3D tissue cultures. The larger cultures from WFIRM will help researchers determine how genetic and functional changes that occur in cells in a microgravity environment impact bigger tissue constructs.
One example: cell adhesion, the process by which cells attach to each other and to an extracellular matrix. Researchers want to know more details about cell adhesion in determining the 3D structures necessary for human organs to survive.
“While many components of cell adhesion have been studied in microgravity, every time the model changes it allows for new insight as to how changes in cell adhesion may affect human organs in microgravity,” said James Yoo, MD, PhD, a professor of regenerative medicine at WFIRM.
Getting its research on the Ax-2 mission is the latest in the institute’s space-related work. In 2021, WFIRM took the top two prizes in the NASA Vascular Tissue Challenge, earning awards totaling $400,000.
Part of the current mission involves WFIRM researchers setting up and monitoring a parallel study of the liver and kidney tissue constructs on earth. The same processes are being applied on the ISS and in Winston-Salem - and at the same time, as the space crew is in touch with WFIRM researchers on the ground - to compare the results in microgravity to what’s found in the lab.
An additional side of the research is to find clues about human tissue that can be applied to future space travel and the health effects of spending extended periods of time in space.
Axiom is the first private contractor to send astronauts to the ISS. The company, headed by President and CEO Michael Suffredini, who was NASA’s ISS manager for 10 years, completed its first mission last year. Axiom plans to launch the first commercial space station in 2025.