The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space is increasingly green-lighting research projects for the International Space Station.

The crystals on the left were grown in microgravity. Those on the right formed on Earth.  (NASA)

Get ready for the rodents in outer space to outnumber the humans. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space is increasingly green-lighting research projects for the International Space Station.

The organization expects that the unique conditions of outer space could lead to research breakthroughs.

“We believe there are scientific projects that people haven’t even thought about taking gravity out of the equation, and if they realize how easy it is and how accessible it is to get to the space station they’d be all over it,” said Greg Johnson, the executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space.

The organization approved 28 projects in 2013 and expects to launch more this year. In 2011 it began managing the U.S. lab on the International Space Station for NASA.

“There are things we can learn about the planet from 250 miles we frankly just can’t learn from here,” Johnson said. “We can learn about algal blooms in oceans. We can better understand patterns in the atmosphere and how they interface with land masses and water masses.”

In zero gravity, human and animal bones degenerate, opening a door for studying osteoporosis. Prolia, a drug designed to treat postmenopausal osteoporosis, was developed using research on lab rats that were tested on the space shuttle Endeavour in 2001.

One of the current experiments taking place on the International Space Station addresses Huntington’s disease, in which proteins clump up in a patient’s brain. The surface of the proteins mutate, making it hard for researchers to analyze them. Without an accurate depiction of the protein, scientists can’t design a drug to latch onto the surface and serve as a meaningful treatment for Huntington’s disease.

Gwen Owens, a Ph.D candidate at UCLA-Caltech, is studying the Huntington’s disease protein in crystal form. She heard an NPR segment about the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space and recalled a researcher’s work using micogravity. Given that crystals grow better in space, she figured it was worth pursuing.

“The real bottleneck is getting the crystals to form,” Owens said. “Once we have the crystals, it’s not that easy, but it’s not that hard.” Owens will get a better understanding of just how valuable zero gravity proves to be when her lab gets results back in September.


Committee Approves Bipartisan NASA Authorization Act

Washington, D.C. – The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology today approved the NASA Authorization Act of 2014 (H.R. 4412) with unanimous bipartisan support. The bipartisan bill reaffirms Congress’s commitment to space exploration, both human and robotic, and makes clear that human spaceflight to Mars is NASA’s primary goal.

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas): “Today’s bill ensures that NASA will continue to innovate and inspire. The scientists, engineers and astronauts who find creative and new solutions to the challenges of exploring the universe serve as role models for our students. NASA has accomplished some of the most awe-inspiring and technologically advanced space initiatives in the history of humankind. There is strong, bipartisan support for NASA’s unique role, and the Manager’s Amendment offered today reflects this.”

The bipartisan Manager’s Amendment, offered by Space Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) and Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-Md.), increases the use of the International Space Station for science research, encourages commercial use of space, protects us from the effects of solar flares, helps remove orbital debris, and supports the development of a new space telescope that will detect Earth-sized planets.

Subcommittee Chairman Palazzo: “I would like to thank Chairman Smith, Ms. Edwards, and Ms. Johnson for their efforts in pulling together this agreement, as well as all of our staff who labored over this bill. I look forward to continuing our work to pass this bill on the House floor. I am proud that we are able to put our names on a bipartisan bill for the sake of our nation’s space program, national pride, and our national security.”

The NASA Authorization Act of 2014 continues the consistent guidance Congress has given to NASA for nearly a decade by reaffirming a stepping stone approach to exploration in a go-as-you-can-afford-to-pay manner by developing an exploration roadmap.  It supports the development on the Space Launch System and the Orion Crew Vehicle to push the boundaries of human exploration, and focuses NASA’s efforts to develop a capability to access low Earth orbit and the International Space Station so that America can once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.

The bill also supports a healthy science directorate that reflects the input from the scientific community and an aeronautics research directorate that contributes to our nation’s aerospace economy. 


NASA Bioreactors Advance Disease Treatments

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

The International Space Station (ISS) is falling. This is no threat to the astronauts onboard, however, because falling is part of the ISS staying in orbit.

The absence of gravity beyond the Earth’s atmosphere is actually an illusion; at the ISS’s orbital altitude of approximately 250 miles above the surface, the planet’s gravitational pull is only 12-percent weaker than on the ground. Gravity is constantly pulling the ISS back to Earth, but the space station is also constantly traveling at nearly 18,000 miles per hour. This means that, even though the ISS is falling toward Earth, it is moving sideways fast enough to continually miss impacting the planet. The balance between the force of gravity and the ISS’s motion creates a stable orbit, and the fact that the ISS and everything in it—including the astronauts—are falling at an equal rate creates the condition of weightlessness called microgravity.

A spherical cell appears next to an amorphous cell.

Cells grown in microgravity (A) tend to become more spherical than those grown on Earth (B). This demonstrates that tissues can grow and differentiate into distinct structures in microgravity. NASA’s rotating wall bioreactor simulates weightlessness to mimic this effect on Earth.

The constant falling of objects in orbit is not only an important principle in space, but it is also a key element of a revolutionary NASA technology here on Earth that may soon help cure medical ailments from heart disease to diabetes.

In the mid-1980s, NASA researchers at Johnson Space Center were investigating the effects of long-term microgravity on human tissues. At the time, the Agency’s shuttle fleet was grounded following the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and researchers had no access to the microgravity conditions of space. To provide a method for recreating such conditions on Earth, Johnson’s David Wolf, Tinh Trinh, and Ray Schwarz developed that same year a horizontal, rotating device—called a rotating wall bioreactor—that allowed the growth of human cells in simulated weightlessness. Previously, cell cultures on Earth could only be grown two-dimensionally in Petri dishes, because gravity would cause the multiplying cells to sink within their growth medium. These cells do not look or function like real human cells, which grow three-dimensionally in the body. Experiments conducted by Johnson scientist Dr. Thomas Goodwin proved that the NASA bioreactor could successfully cultivate cells using simulated microgravity, resulting in three-dimensional tissues that more closely approximate those in the body. Further experiments conducted on space shuttle missions and by Wolf as an astronaut on the Mir space station demonstrated that the bioreactor’s effects were even further expanded in space, resulting in remarkable levels of tissue formation.

While the bioreactor may one day culture red blood cells for injured astronauts or single-celled organisms like algae as food or oxygen producers for a Mars colony, the technology’s cell growth capability offers significant opportunities for terrestrial medical research right now. A small Texas company is taking advantage of the NASA technology to advance promising treatment applications for diseases both common and obscure.


In 2002, Houston-based biotechnology firm Regenetech Inc. (then called BioCell Innovations) acquired the licenses for the NASA bioreactor and a number of related patents for use in the burgeoning field of adult stem cell research. (Unlike ethically controversial embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells are harvested from sources such as blood and bone marrow.) Employing a novel business model that takes advantage of sponsored research agreements with major medical institutions like the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Regenetech was able to begin testing and adapting the bioreactor’s capabilities for use with human stem cells with a first year budget of only $100,000. A NASA Space Act Agreement that saw the company share resources with Goodwin at Johnson, as well as additional licensing agreements between the company and the Agency, enabled Regenetech to further complement the bioreactor with its own proprietary improvements.

Product Outcome

Regenetech has built upon its licensed NASA technology to create a thriving intellectual property business that is providing researchers with the tools to make adult stem cell therapy viable for the public.

Adult stem cells are found in some types of body tissue. These cells are multipotent, meaning they can differentiate into a specific range of specialized cells. This makes them appealing possibilities for treating diseases—the stem cells differentiate into healthy replacements for sick or damaged cells. Blood stem cells, for example, can transform into red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets; these cells could provide a potential treatment for blood diseases like sickle cell anemia.

One of the richest sources of adult stem cells is bone marrow.

“There are about 70 different conditions and diseases where bone marrow stem cells have been used to regenerate tissue or treat disease,” says Donnie Rudd, Regenetech’s chief scientist and director of intellectual property. Stem cells can be harvested from a patient’s bone marrow through a procedure called bone marrow apheresis—a process that like any medical procedure carries some level of risk. The problem with alternative methods of adult stem cell harvest is getting enough of the cells to have therapeutic value, which is where Regenetech’s Intrifuge cellXpansion technology comes to bear.

Two scientists examine a bioreactor.

Regenetech scientists examine the company’s bioreactors. Licensed from NASA, the bioreactor technology allows for rapid, healthy cell growth, providing for a quicker, cheaper source of adult stem cells for therapy and medical research.

“We can take a sample of peripheral blood from a patient’s arm, separate the stem cells, put that into our improved NASA bioreactor, and then multiply the cells to a therapeutic level without all the trauma of bone marrow apheresis,” says Rudd.

Regenetech’s Intrifuge rotating wall bioreactor cradles a soup can-sized, rotating chamber that is used to expand, or multiply, harvested stem cells. The cell sample, contained in a growth fluid, is placed in the rotating chamber equipped with a membrane for oxygenation and gas exchange. As the chamber rotates, the cells are suspended in a constant state of falling—similar to an object in space orbit. This condition is enabled by a rotating inner wall that reduces shear from the nutrient fluid. In this simulated weightlessness, the cells do not get damaged and die from bouncing off the sides of the chamber. They multiply rapidly (50–200 times in size in as few as 6 days) into healthy populations, providing a quicker and cheaper source of stem cells for therapy or medical research. Regenetech’s cellXpansion process is being tested for further enhancement by a NASA-developed electromagnetic coil that surrounds the canister and which NASA developed to stimulate nerve cell growth. The coil, also patented by the NASA bioreactor development team and licensed by Regenetech, produces time varying electromagnetic conditions.

Regenetech started producing revenue only 5 years after its founding, and since acquiring the original NASA licenses, it has developed over 300 of its own patents and patent applications and has licensed out its technologies on a global scale. The company generates its revenue through research partnerships and licensing its patents to stem cell researchers in pursuit of treatments for everything from heart disease to diabetes to liver cirrhosis. It is currently engaged in sponsored research agreements with major universities to develop stem cell therapy for type 1 diabetes, study blood stem cells, and create stem cell veterinary orthopedic treatments using the company’s Intrifuge cellXpansion technology.

Through an agreement with NASA, Regenetech is also able to offer significant help to researchers pursuing treatments of rare diseases that affect less than 200,000 people in the United States and thus do not offer enough return on drug development investment. NASA allows the company to charge as little as $1,000 to $10,000 to license its NASA-developed technologies to researchers of such rare diseases.

“Our relationship with NASA has allowed us to get this technology out into the field for those diseases that otherwise might never be treated,” says Rudd.

Intrifuge™ and cellXpansion™ are trademarks of Regenetech Inc.

Dragon Delivers Science, Station Supplies

SpaceX-3 berthed to station
The SpaceX Dragon cargo craft is berthed to the Earth-facing port of the International Space Station’s Harmony node.
Image Credit: 
SpaceX Dragon
This image of SpaceX Dragon grappled by Canadarm2 was sent down by Flight Engineer Steve Swanson to Instagram with the message, “We have a Dragon. All is good.”
Image Credit: 

The Expedition 39 crew welcomed nearly two and a half tons of supplies and scientific payloads to the International Space Station with the arrival of the third SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo spacecraft Sunday.

With Dragon securely in the grasp of Canadarm2, the robotics officer at Mission Control remotely operated the arm to install the capsule to its port on the Earth-facing side of the Harmony module. Once Dragon was in place, Flight Engineer Rick Mastracchio monitored the Common Berthing Mechanism operations for first and second stage capture of the cargo ship, assuring that the vehicle was securely attached to the station with a hard mate. Second stage capture was completed at 10:06 a.m. EDT as the station flew 260 miles above Brazil.

Dragon was grappled at 7:14 a.m. as it flew within about 32 feet of the complex by Commander Koichi Wakata — with assistance from Mastracchio – as he controlled the 57-foot Canadarm2 from a robotics workstation inside the station’s cupola. Flight Engineer Steve Swanson joined his crewmates in the seven-windowed cupola to assist with the capture and help coordinate the activities. At the time of capture, the orbital laboratory was flying around 260 statute miles over Egypt, west of the Nile River.

Afterward, Wakata sent down his kudos to SpaceX and the ground teams as he remarked, “Congratulations to the entire ops team for the successful launch, rendezvous and capture operation. The vehicle, the spacecraft was very solid and very stable. And the Canadarm2 was really solid, and it made it easier for us to capture.”

Flight Director Matt Abbott monitors the approach of the SpaceX Dragon from a console in the International Space Station flight control room at Houston’s Mission Control Center.
Image Credit: 

The crew will spend much of the remainder of their workday pressurizing the vestibule between Dragon and the station and setting up power and data cables to prepare for the opening of Dragon’s hatch on Monday.

Filled with nearly 5,000 pounds of crew supplies and cargo to support more than 150 scientific investigations planned for Expeditions 39 and 40, Dragon is scheduled to spend four weeks attached to the station. The crew will reload the space freighter with about 3,600 pounds of experiment samples and hardware for return to Earth.

After Dragon’s mission at the station is completed, Mission Control Houston will remotely unberth Dragon from Harmony and maneuver it to the to the release point with Canadarm2, The station crew then will release Dragon for its parachute-assisted splashdown and recovery in the Pacific Ocean.

Dragon launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 3:25 p.m. Friday from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The SpaceX-3 mission is the company’s third cargo delivery flight to the station through a $1.6 billion NASA Commercial Resupply Services contract.