Each year, thousands of people in the U.S. receive a potentially life-saving organ transplant. However, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a new person is added to the organ transplant waiting list every 10 minutes, and due to the shortage of donated organs, an average of 22 people die each day waiting for an organ.
This organ shortage crisis has led to efforts to shrink the growing gap between the number of organs needed and the number available. One field aimed at addressing this critical issue is organ bioengineering, or growing entire organs in the laboratory.
While the field of regenerative medicine holds much promise, progress has been slow toward developing whole organs. Recent advances in stem cell biology and microfluidic cell culture platforms have allowed researchers to begin to study the human body in new ways, but many challenges remain before we are able to grow new organs for transplantation into patients.
One tool that could potentially accelerate research toward organ bioengineering is microgravity. Exposing cell cultures to reduced gravity conditions induces changes in cell growth and differentiation that could provide researchers with new insight into cellular mechanisms and tissue behaviors involved in the formation of whole tissues. Research conducted in the microgravity environment onboard the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory could help scientists develop better methods for growing and studying cell spheroids (which could enable creation of tissues and whole organs) in an environment that better mimics conditions in the body.
The path to bioengineering research in space
The mission of the ISS National Lab is to utilize the ISS to benefit life on Earth, and a significant effort within this mission is to improve human health through spaceflight regenerative-medicine research. Toward this end, the ISS National Lab organized an Organ Bioengineering Research in Microgravity Roundtable (in conjunction with the 2015 World Stem Cell Summit in Atlanta, Georgia) with two primary objectives:
- To identify key research questions and potential challenges for developing new technologies and platforms to enable next-generation regenerative medicine and organ bioengineering, and
- To define and optimize a strategy to expand utilization of the unique environment of the ISS National Lab to accelerate regenerative research for Earth benefit.
In addition, roundtable participants considered collaborative funding opportunities and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education initiatives related to organ bioengineering and microgravity. During the roundtable meeting, participants broke into discussion groups focused on the topics of (i) stem cell biology, (ii) microphysiological systems, and (iii) creating tissues and organs.
The roundtable brought together thought leaders in these three topic areas—from a variety of backgrounds and organizations, including academia, government, and private industry—to help define the role that research on the ISS National Lab might play in helping to advance the field of regenerative medicine and end the organ shortage crisis. This initial discussion identified the first steps in establishing a long-term sponsored research program in organ bioengineering onboard the ISS National Lab.
The report compiled from the roundtable discussion highlights preliminary research questions, challenges, and possible advantages of conducting organ bioengineering research in microgravity. The recommendations highlighted in the report are meant to initiate a path toward optimal use of the unique environment on the ISS National Lab to enable collaborative organ bioengineering research aimed at mitigating the organ shortage crisis and improving human health on Earth. As the next step in this process, a newly formed Science Definition Team will continue to define the key questions and challenges in this area of regenerative medicine and identify opportunities for spaceflight organ bioengineering initiatives.