CU Boulder-built payloads to support medical research, stem cell experiments in space

February 15, 2017

Two University of Colorado Boulder-built payloads, including one designed to help researchers better understand and perhaps outsmart dangerous infections like MRSA, will launch on a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) on Feb. 18.

The biomedical payloads are supported by CU Boulder’s BioServe Space Technologies NASA-funded center in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences. That center has built and flown more than 100 payloads on board more than 50 spaceflight missions. The second payload will support research on the possible increase in the proliferation of stem cells in space, a potential boon for biomedical therapy on Earth.

This will be the ninth Dragon mission to the ISS that SpaceX – headed by entrepreneur Elon Musk – has carried CU Boulder-built payloads since 2012. SpaceX’s Dragon will launch atop one of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets.

“We are looking forward to another successful mission and continuing our partnership with SpaceX, NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space,” said BioServe Director Louis Stodieck. “By providing a low-gravity environment, the ISS has been shown to be an effective testbed to better understand cellular changes, which can have significant implications for advancing biomedical research on Earth.”

Headed by Dr. Anita Goel of Nanobiosym in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the first experiment will carry two strains of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in hopes of better identifying and predicting bacterial mutations, said Stodieck. Understanding such mutations, which are believed to occur at a higher rate in near-weightlessness, could shed new light on how the deadly bacteria become drug-resistant.

Goel and her colleagues will use the patented GENE-Radar technology developed at Nanobiosym to identify patterns of mutations in the strains of MRSA bacteria flying on ISS and compare them with control experiments on Earth. The data will be used to refine predictive algorithms as a step toward developing better drugs against pathogens.

The second experiment, led by Dr. Abba Zubiar of the Mayo College of Medicine in Jacksonville, Florida, involves growing stem cells in space for future use in medical therapies on Earth. Stem cells are extremely valuable in biomedicine – several million of them are required for use in a single human therapy treatment on Earth.

The space-grown stem cells will be returned from ISS to Earth in several months and will subsequently be used by researchers in clinical trials to test their efficacy in treating human diseases. Stem cells, used in regenerative medicine and tissue engineering, also have been used in treatments for stroke and cancer.

Both experiments will involve the use of BioServe’s high-tech cell-culture hardware known as BioCells, which will be loaded into the BioServe-built, shoebox-sized habitats on ISS. The habitats will be housed in BioServe’s Space Automated Bioproduct Labs (SABL), newly updated “smart” incubators that will reduce the time astronauts spend manipulating the experiments.

“Undergraduate and graduate students played a significant role in the development of these payloads,” said BioServe Associate Director Stefanie Countryman, who currently is in Cape Canaveral, Florida, helping to prepare the experiments for launch.

BioServe also is providing tissue preservation kits for a mouse experiment flying on ISS better understand vertebrate bone and tissue growth in space, said Stodieck.

According to the Infectious Disease Society of America, MRSA kills more Americans every year than emphysema, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease and homicide combined.

BioServe has had a permanent presence on ISS since 2002. Since its inception in 1987, BioServe has partnered with more than 100 companies. BioServe partners include large and small pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, universities and NASA-funded researchers. Learn more about BioServe.