2014 Most Compelling Science From The International Space Station Announced

Expedition 39 flight engineer Steve Swanson works with the NanoRacks BioRack in the Kibo Japanese Experiment Pressurized Module (JPM), which includes the NanoRacks-CellBox-Thyroid Cancer investigation to study the effects of microgravity on human thyroid carcinoma cells. Image Credit: NASA

Expedition 39 flight engineer Steve Swanson works with the NanoRacks BioRack in the Kibo Japanese Experiment Pressurized Module (JPM), which includes the NanoRacks-CellBox-Thyroid Cancer investigation to study the effects of microgravity on human thyroid carcinoma cells.
Image Credit: NASA

July 8, 2015 – In a year filled with captivating and ground-breaking experiments conducted on the International Space Station, three investigations were recognized for significant scientific results at the fourth annual ISS Research and Development Conference in Boston on July 7.

“These selected awardees are elevating space science to a new level,” said Julie Robinson, chief scientist for the International Space Station. “Their investigations provide insight to improve life on Earth while helping execute NASA’s journey to Mars. This includes human research investigations improving our understanding of how space impacts the human body and the spacecraft we will use to reach destinations beyond the space station.”

These investigations were honored in the Most Compelling Results category:

  • Joel Plawsky, Sc.D., and Peter C. Wayner Jr., Ph.D., both of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, in recognition of work on the physics of evaporation and condensation in microgravity.

  • Robert J. Ferl, Ph.D., and Anna-Lisa Paul, Ph.D., both of the University of Florida in Gainesville, for their work using a plant as a real-time biosensor to determine the quality of the surrounding environment.

  • Dr. Daniela Grimm of Aarhus, Denmark, in recognition of her findings while growing thyroid cancer cells in orbit to determine new courses of treatment.

  • Plawsky and Wayner are investigating the physics of evaporation and condensation and how it affects cooling processes in microgravity with the Constrained Vapor Bubble (CVB) investigation. When electronics generate heat in a spacecraft, astronauts cannot just open a window to cool their environment. Using a remote controlled microscope on the station and a wickless heat pipe as a small cooling device, researchers observed bubble formations and an increase in heat transfer. This example of interfacial phenomena, or the way different phases of matter interact at their boundaries during heat transfer, was an important observation in the study. Designers and scientists can use data from this research to develop more efficient microelectronic cooling systems, increasing efficiency in heat transfer devices for cooling critical components.

    “The effect of gravity is minimized on the space station, which helps us study the effect of interfacial phenomena on fluid flow and heat transfer,” said Wayner. “Although interfacial phenomena can be studied on Earth, the same breadth and depth of research cannot be achieved here. The station provides a unique opportunity to study the effect of the near absence of gravity on science and engineering, the results of which are important to future space endeavors.”

    The Transgenic Arabidopsis Gene Expression System (TAGES) experiment from Ferl and Paul adds special genes to turn a plant into a monitor to measure the quality of the surrounding environment. Fluorescent markers on selected genes of Arabidopsis thaliana, a type of plant grown on the space station, allow scientists to study root development in space. Ferl and Paul showed that, in the absence of gravity, but in the presence of a directional light source, roots grow at an angl­e rather than straight away from the light source. This skewing pattern of root growth was previously thought to be gravity-dependent, and is an example of a discovery that would not have been possible without access to a microgravity test environment. Root growth patterns on the orbiting laboratory mimic that of plants grown at a 45-degree angle on Earth. Microgravity also appears to slow the rate of the plant’s early growth.

    For future long-duration exploration, crews will need to be able to grow plants for a variety of applications, including providing fresh vegetables for their dinner table.

    “TAGES demonstrates the capabilities of providing the correct environment for plant growth on spacecraft,” said Paul. “The miniaturization of the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) imaging apparatus for this investigation also produced an easily transportable device to conduct field analysis of plants on Earth, as long as the plants are genetically programmed with biomonitors.”

    Another significant scientific result from the orbiting laboratory involved cancer research. Finding new treatments for cancer requires detailed studies of tumor cells, but when cells are grown in a lab on Earth, gravity affects the way they grow and the shapes they take. The Effect of Microgravity on Human Thyroid Carcinoma Cells (NanoRacks-CellBox-Thyroid Cancer) investigation studies thyroid cancer cells in microgravity, which enables cells to grow in spherical aggregates or in single layers, mimicking the framework found in actual tumor tissue. These unique structures will be used to look for new biomarkers, which can be used to develop new drugs to treat thyroid cancer.

    “According to the American Cancer Society, the rate of thyroid cancer cases in the United States is accelerating,” said Grimm, principal investigator for the investigation. “Part of the reason is because new technology allows doctors to find it more easily, but we still need to treat it. Fortunately, death rates have not increased over the last 10 years. Results from this investigation may reveal new biological markers for thyroid cancer, which could be used to develop new drugs to treat this and other kinds of cancer.”

    These methods for studying cancer would not be possible in Earth’s gravity, making the International Space Station a unique laboratory for studying cancer.