Cell culture under the conditions of microgravity in space allows researchers to understand how microgravity stress affects cells, from changes in gene expression to self-assembly of 3D structures for disease models.
When we hear about research on microgravity, we think mainly about the health of astronauts and survival on a trip to Mars.
However, the effects of microgravity can have a strong positive impact on the industries here on Earth, especially with regard to the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.
Life Sciences research is a highly developed area within the microgravity research sector in space, as evidenced by the preponderance of 30 years of federally funded research by NASA and ESA (European Space Station), in the shuttle era and with support from the ISS (International Space Station). This will continue, as we see pharmaceutical, biotechnological and medical device companies using the Low Earth Orbit (“Low Earth Orbit”) to develop medicines, improve production procedures, optimize manufacturing processes, cultivate human tissue for more precise medicines, and to cultivate tissues for a more accurate modeling of diseases.
In this short article, we will explain the benefits in two main areas: cell cultures and protein crystal growth:
Cell culture under the conditions of microgravity in space allows researchers to understand how microgravity stress affects cells, from changes in gene expression to self-assembly of 3D structures for disease models. The use of cell culture is the basis for many experiments in microgravity, and even a simple understanding of the basic differences between the genetic expression of cells cultured in microgravity and those that are cultivated in Earth’s gravity can lead to advances in understanding human health and diseases.
Drug development: Human cells produce much better models of human disease and drug reactions than animal models, and cells grow in space more similar to the organs in the real human body.
Disease modeling: Space has been shown to cause muscle loss, decreased bone density, and cellular senescence – all of which can be compared to the effects of aging on Earth. The culture of cells in microgravity allows studies of muscle loss, decreased bone density, and the process of cellular senescence in microgravity, for weeks, months, and possibly years, for comparison with what is happening on Earth. If cells age more rapidly in microgravity than on Earth, when grown in vitro, this can lead to a long-term understanding of ways to combat cell aging.
The growth of crystals in Microgravity is being driven by microgravity conditions at the International Space Station. For material things like macromolecules, weightlessness can benefit chemical reactions and physical processes such as crystal growth, thanks to reduced turbulent flow and / or slowing down the rate of nucleation, aggregation, and crystal formation. These changes may result in the formation of physically larger and more homogeneous crystals that, in turn, can be visually inspected on Earth to generate higher resolution images of the macromolecule’s physical structure. Crystals that grow in microgravity are of great interest to the large pharmaceutical and biotechnological companies operating on Earth. Better crystals help in the development and reformulation of drugs for pharmacological interventions and biological benefits. Microgravity enables better mapping of macromolecules and / or their therapeutic targets, in order to prevent, treat, or cure diseases, thanks to the larger and more orderly crystals produced in a microgravity environment.
These two effects alone have led to numerous experiments on the ISS by commercial companies such as Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, Eli Lilly or Bristol-Myers Squibb. Merck has even improved its successful cancer drug Keytruda, thanks to microgravity research. The next advances derived from research in the unique environment of microgravity can be looked forward to.