When SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launched on Thursday evening, July 14, 2022, the rocket carried with it muscle cells donated by Central Floridians to the International Space Station (ISS).
The cargo is an experiment run by a team of scientists from the University of Florida and AdventHealth to examine how microgravity changes muscle cells. The findings could one day prove helpful to astronauts who spend long periods in space or — for those of us who are earthbound — potentially translate to new ways to prevent or reverse weakness developed by patients confined to bed or with limited mobility.
“This is a really exciting time for us,” Paul Coen, an associate investigator at AdventHealth’s Translational Research Institute, said. “The tissue chips are like miniature labs that will allow us to study how microgravity not only negatively impacts muscle biology but will also give us the opportunity to test therapeutic countermeasures.”
Muscles atrophy and weaken when a patient is unable to move, and Coen, who studies how aging impacts muscle loss, is looking for clues to help people remain stronger for longer periods of time. The cells headed to ISS are divided into two groups — those collected from young adults and older adults. Scientists want to understand how microgravity might impact muscle from older adults differently than younger adults.
The shoebox-size LabCube that contains the muscle tissue chips will then be frozen and preserved before it returns to earth later in the year. The tissue chips will travel to the University of Florida, where Siobhan Malany, the lead investigator and a professor in the College of Pharmacy, will run a number of tests to determine the impact of microgravity on the cells.
This is the second launch into space of human muscle cells collected at AdventHealth after the first batch took off in 2018. New this time is electrical stimulation built into the tissue chips so that researchers can simulate the muscle cells contracting aboard ISS. The goal is to understand how contraction might protect the cells from microgravity.
A separate but scientifically related National Institutes of Health-funded study led by Coen is also underway at AdventHealth Translational Research Institute. He is asking participants to spend 10 days on bedrest at TRI’s Clinical Research Unit and is comparing muscle mass, fitness, and other health variables before, during, and after the 10-day period. People taking part in the study can’t get up and walk around, but they can read, scroll through their phones, or watch TV or movies.
“The bedrooms at our clinical research unit are nicely furnished and are really comfortable,” Coen said. “Generally, our participants have a pretty good time during their 10-day stay with us.”
The results from both the space and bedrest research might one day help people recover faster after long hospital stays or, perhaps, one day combat natural muscle changes brought on by aging, researchers said.