In the popular imagination, the main dangers facing astronauts tend to be aliens, meteors or robot rebellions. But real-life threats to astronaut health are more likely to be caused by the physiological stresses of low-gravity environments. That’s the impetus for the Kidney-on-a-Chip in Space Project, a novel program led by UW Medicine and UW School of Pharmacy researchers.
Microgravity — the lower gravity that astronauts experience on the International Space Station (ISS) or in space — can cause significant health problems. Bones quickly lose calcium and other minerals, which leads to osteoporosis, while the lost minerals end up in the kidney, where they can form kidney stones. The stones are capable of causing severe pain, nausea, even infection.
“A kidney stone on the ISS is a mission-critical health emergency,” says Jonathan Himmelfarb, M.D. Himmelfarb is a UW professor in the Division of Nephrology, the Joseph W. Eschbach, M.D. Endowed Chair in Kidney Research and the director of the Kidney Research Institute (KRI), a collaboration between Northwest Kidney Centers and UW Medicine.
Organs-on-chips represent a new way to study human diseases. Each kidney-on-a-chip is about the size of a credit card and contains a central chamber lined with live kidney cells; these engineered biological tissues simulate the actions of a human kidney. At the ISS, astronauts will infuse 24 kidneys-on-chips with various compounds, such as vitamin D, to learn more about the best methods for treating osteoporosis and kidney stones in space.
From the beginning, the organs-on-a-chip project has been a multidisciplinary collaboration. “We’ve been working with faculty from the UW School of Pharmacy since we began,” says Himmelfarb. “We’ve also worked very intensely with bioengineering and public health. Different segments of the project take place in different labs around UW.”
The space project is funded by a four-year, $3 million grant awarded by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. While the grant is intended to advance space medicine, the project will also have other benefits. Organs-on-chips can test the potential effects of new medications more efficiently and accurately than clinical trials on animal models, and researchers hope their discoveries will lead to better treatments for a range of kidney diseases.
“We can learn a lot in space about cellular function that may have implications that are applicable on Earth,” says Himmelfarb.
The team’s next step is to work with an implementation partner to design lightweight, space-saving experiments for the kidney chips — an important consideration given that it costs about $10,000 per pound to transport items to the space station.
Although he has not yet received a call from NASA, Himmelfarb would happily volunteer to tend his experiments personally. “If they would let me go up on the International Space Station, that would be a lot of fun,” he says.