Space mission to investigate drug treatment for age-related muscle loss

University of Florida researchers will send a tissue-chip experiment to the International Space Station on Nov. 22 to investigate whether a drug compound made from tomatoes can restore age-related muscle loss.

The experiment will help scientists understand how microgravity affects human muscle biology and could lead to new therapies for age-related muscle loss on Earth.

Muscle loss in older adults can lead to a dramatic decline in mobility and increase the risk of falls and fractures. There are no effective drug therapies because molecular changes associated with aging can take many decades to develop.

Siobhan Malany
Siobhan Malany, Ph.D.

“Scientists have turned to space to study the effects of aging because microgravity can accelerate muscle mass changes,” said Siobhan Malany, Ph.D., an associate professor of pharmacodynamics in the UF College of Pharmacy. “If we can take what we learn in space and apply it to drug development on Earth, then we’re taking a big step forward in developing new therapies for muscle loss in older adults.”

Introducing a drug compound is the latest in a series of space studies Malany has led. She has worked with a team of engineers and developers to build a miniaturized laboratory, called a CubeLab, that plugs into the Space Station and allows scientists to study live human cells in space. The shoebox-sized lab features an automated tissue chip system, which feeds nutrients to 3D muscle bundles four times a day. Tiny electrodes built into the chips allow scientists to study muscle contractions, while a microscope camera system moves on a rail above the chips collecting images and data.

The CubeLab features 16 skeletal muscle tissue chips — each containing a single 3D muscle bundle. Half the chips are engineered from cells that were biopsied from a cohort under 40 years old, while the other half were collected from adults over 60. All the cells will receive electric stimulation in space to prompt muscle contractions, and then half of each cohort will be exposed to a natural product isolated from the skin of green tomatoes that shows protection from muscle wasting in aged mice.

Malany Space Experiment
The miniaturized laboratory plugs into the International Space Station and allows scientists to study live human cells in space.

“Adding the drug component represents a significant advancement in tissue-chip technology and how we study muscle movement in space as well as what microgravity can tell us about accelerated muscle decline,” Malany said. “Once this space study concludes, we’ll run the same experiment on Earth and compare the results. The data will give us new insight into countering muscle loss and muscle disease.”

Other tissue chip-based experiments performed on the International Space Station take more than 70 hours of crew time over several weeks. Malany’s experiment is fully automated and does not require precious crew time. Therefore, the experiment also advances the miniaturization and automation of human tissue-chip technology for evaluating potential therapeutics in space and on Earth. The long-term goal is to replace the use of animal models and be more predictive of human response to drugs.

For Malany, the coming launch marks the fourth tissue-chip study sent to the Space Station. Previous missions in 2018, 2020 and July 2022 have helped her research team refine the technology used to study human tissue in space. The first space flight featured only two tissue chips; the latest mission features 16.

The Falcon 9 rocket carrying UF’s laboratory is set to launch Nov. 22 from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida for SpaceX’s 26th Commercial Resupply Mission. Malany’s experiment will run for about nine days on the Space Station before returning to Earth a month later.

Funding for the tissue-chip research is provided by the National Institutes of Health and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. The project is supported by multiple agencies including AdventHealth Orlando, Micro-gRx Inc., Micro Aerospace Solutions Inc., Space Tango and the UF Department of Biomedical Engineering.