April 17, 2016 – High-tech hardware designed and built at the University of Colorado Boulder was launched to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the commercial SpaceX Dragon capsule on Friday, April 8.
Developed by BioServe Space Technologies, headquartered in CU-Boulder’s Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, the hardware will support four biomedical experiments, said BioServe Associate Director Stefanie Countryman.
BioServe researchers and students have flown hardware and experiments on more than 50 missions aboard NASA space shuttles, the ISS and on Russian and Japanese government cargo rockets. BioServe previously has flown payloads on commercial cargo rockets developed by both SpaceX, headquartered in Hawthorne, California and Orbital ATK, Inc. headquartered in Dulles, Virginia.
The BioServe hardware includes several shoebox-sized devices known as “plate habitats” to support a range of life science experiments. Each habitat is used to culture biological organisms, according to BioServe Director Louis Stodieck.
The four investigations using BioServe hardware include researchers from the University of Southern California, the Durham VA Medical Hospital in Durham, North Carolina, Lilly Research Laboratories in Indianapolis, Indiana and the Houston Methodist Research Institute in Texas.
One experiment is designed to better understand cell biology by charting the behavior of yeast cell cultures in microgravity. Since multicellular yeast colonies are similar to mammalian cell tumors, researchers hope to identify biological factors that may contribute to the health and disease of humans in space and on Earth, Stodieck said.
A second is designed to help researchers better understand the mechanisms of molecular transport across tiny membrane channels, with implications for future human implants that could release drugs to treat various diseases, he said. The third experiment will involve culturing fungi, which could lead to the production of new pharmaceuticals.
The fourth experiment will look at developing treatments for bone and muscle loss by both space travelers and people on Earth, said Stodieck. The experiment could help lead to new treatments of muscle and bone diseases in humans like muscular dystrophy, osteoporosis and cancer cachexia, a syndrome of progressive weight loss in cancer victims due to loss of skeletal muscle and body fat.
Since its inception in 1987, BioServe has partnered with more than 100 companies and performed dozens of NASA-sponsored investigations, said Stodieck.
“We believe these experiments in the microgravity of space are extremely valuable for both research and education,” he said. “By conducting experiments in microgravity, scientists can learn more about biochemical changes in cells and organisms that the force of gravity on Earth may be masking.”
In addition to scientific research, BioServe has been involved in a number of educational experiments involving developing butterflies and web-spinning spiders in space that have reached thousands of K-12 students around the world. In 2012 a jumping spider lived for 100 days on ISS in a habitat built by BioServe before being returned to Earth and starting a new life at the Smithsonian Institution, said Countryman.
BioServe partners include large and small pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, universities and NASA-funded researchers. Both undergraduate and graduate CU-Boulder students are involved in BioServe research efforts.