Rocket to Deliver Cell Samples to ISS to Study Effects of Microgravity on Muscles

Microscope, research, lab image
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ORLANDO, Fla., Nov. 12, 2018 — Several Central Floridians will soon be going into space — well, a small part of them, anyway.

Muscle cells from research study participants at AdventHealth’s Translational Research Institute for Metabolism and Diabetes will be blasting off to the International Space Station next week as part of an experiment to examine the effects of a weightless environment on muscle health.

“We know microgravity has quite detrimental effects on skeletal muscle; after a long stay in space astronauts come back in a very weak state and are often confined to wheelchairs until their muscle can recover,” said Paul Coen, an investigator at the Translational Research Institute (TRI.) “This experiment will allow us to study the effects of microgravity on muscle cell biology.”

The TRI is a part of AdventHealth’s larger Research Institute, and aims to bridge the gap between the research laboratory and the patient’s bedside. Researchers and medical professionals collaborate on clinical trials to tackle some of today’s biggest health problems, such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The findings from the spaceflight will be important because the research can also be applied to find treatments for age-related muscle loss, known as sarcopenia.

The samples came from eight participants in a recent study on aging and muscle loss, that was supported by the National Institute on Aging and conducted by Dr. Coen. They are scheduled to lift off at 4:29 am Nov. 15 aboard a Cygnus cargo ship from NASA’s flight facility at Wallops Island, Va. The Cygnus will be lifted into space atop a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket.

The cells will ride into orbit on a “lab on a chip” developed in part by Siobhan Malany, a scientist at Sanford Burnham Prebys and president of Micro-gRx. Malany’s company received a $200,000 award from Space Florida through the Florida-Israel Innovation Partnership Program. Micro-gRx has partnered with SpacePharma, a research-and-development company, to develop the mini-lab technology. Additional funding from the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) provides Malany’s team access to the International Space Station through a partnership with Space Tango, a NASA certified flight implementation partner based in Lexington, Ky.

Because the cells have a limited lifespan, there will only be a brief window to study the effects of weightlessness, Malany said.

“We’re hoping to get seven days of microgravity, then the samples will be preserved, frozen and stored until they’re brought back on a SpaceX Dragon capsule, likely in January,” she said. “Essentially they get shipped to us by FedEx from the middle of the ocean.” The team will study the gene expression changes in the cells sent to space compared to the cells that remained on earth.

Each chip is a little smaller than a business card, Malany said, with four, 2-centimeter-squares. There will be two chips, meaning there will be eight separate experiments in progress.

All told, the lab is contained in a 10-by-30-centimeter box, including boards, electronics, pumps, fluidics, and a small microscope that will take multiple images throughout the cells trip in orbit, Malany said. Future missions will also contain a camera and additional electronics to monitor muscle contraction, she added.

The program has received enough funding for two more launches after this month’s flight.

Information about participating in a study at the TRI is available by calling Call877-854-8475 or online at

For media inquiries only, call AdventHealth Corporate Communications at Call407-303-5950.

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