SCI Cafe: Lungs in Space

Last August, a team including two UTMB researchers generated models of human lung tissue and sent them to the International Space Station to examine how the lung cells would grow in space. The experiment was the first time that a large-tissue organoid – in other words, a simplified, miniature organ – was sent into space, and it could have wide-reaching implications for the field of organ regeneration, astronaut health, and future space travel.

While numerous studies have sent animal models, like fruit flies and mice, into space to observe physiological changes and processes, this research utilizes actual human cells and tissues. Therefore, according to UTMB researcher Dr. Joan Nichols, it provides a starting point for understanding how the space environment affects people, specifically.

To learn more about this innovative project, a group of community members, researchers, and clinicians gathered in downtown Galveston’s MOD Coffeehouse. This conversation, part of the Science and Communities Interact (SCI) Café series, was led by Dr. Joan Nichols, Associate Director of the Galveston National Laboratory and Professor of Internal Medicine at UTMB, and Dr. Joaquin Cortiella, Director of the Lab of Tissue Engineering & Organ Regeneration and Professor of Anesthesiology at UTMB. 

Drs. Nichols and Cortiella, as part of a translational research team, have successfully grown human lungs in the laboratory, but conditions in space are much different – first of all, it is a microgravity environment, meaning that objects and people are “weightless,” freely floating around if not secured – and the team sought to find out how this environment would affect cell and tissue growth.

They sent lung stem cells and the bioengineered scaffolding that they grow on, in special bioreactor pouches, to the International Space Station (ISS) on a SpaceX resupply mission. Once the organoids reached the ISS, they were placed into a customized incubator for one month. Identical organoids in bioreactor pouches remained in the laboratory on Earth to serve as a control group. When the tissues returned to Earth, the research team cross-sectioned and evaluated each sample and its control-group counterpart.

The lung tissues in space did not develop in the same way as the lung tissues in the laboratory. The cells in space were less organized, some developed into “balls” of cells rather than long muscle, some had trouble attaching to the scaffold, and some did not differentiate or mature correctly.

Both Drs. Nichols and Cortiella mentioned NASA research comparing astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent a year in space, and his identical twin, Mark Kelly, who remained on earth as a control subject. Among numerous findings, including physical effects like bone loss, reduced muscle strength, and modified eye structure, this research found changes in Scott Kelly’s gene expression levels. These findings could have implications for understanding how the microgravity environment can influence change in our bodies. More research, like this team’s ongoing project, is necessary to fully understand how space affects changes at the cellular, tissue, organ, and system levels.

Some community members were curious about how these findings may impact plans for long-term space travel and even colonization. While the current findings cannot yet provide definitive answers about these complex processes, as a starting point, Drs. Cortiella and Nichols’ team plans to next send larger organoids to space for a longer amount of time. This may contribute to our understanding of how biological processes like healing and tissue regeneration may be impacted by microgravity, how reproduction may occur in space and how development in space may differ from typical human development, and even how humans may evolve to be able to thrive in space. Additionally, future research will need to address how other environmental factors, like pollutants and radiation present in space and within the ISS, impact cell development.

In July, Drs. Nichols and Cortiella will present their research at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in San Francisco. We look forward to learning more about their data, ways their findings can be applied, and future directions of their research.

The Institute for Translational Sciences and the Sealy Center for Environmental Health and Medicine at UTMB invite you to come be a part of the conversation! SCI Café is open to the public and is free to attend. Our next SCI Café will focus on flood risks, and it will be held on May 17th at 5:30pm. These discussions will be held at MOD Coffeehouse, located at 2126 Post Office Street in Galveston. We hope to see you there!


Dr. Cortiella (left) and Dr. Nichols display an example of human lung tissue growth in the laboratory. Photo credit: Kelley Murfin