Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

Cosmos Offers Unique Microgravity Environment for Life Science Research

The weather forecast was iffy, but SpaceX finally launched its Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon spacecraft into orbit on April 14. Dragon is on a commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS), where it will deliver more than 4,300 pounds of supplies and payloads, including material for supporting research.

Many of the headlines at launch focused on one piece of cargo: An espresso machine developed by coffee machine giant Lavazza and engineering firm Argotec with the Italian Space Agency. The “ISSpresso” machine was being delivered to Samantha Cristoforetti, a European Space Agency astronaut from Italy, who arrived on board the ISS in November.  Sharing space with ISSpresso, however, were equipment to directly support about 40 of more than 250 science and research investigations that will occur during the space station’s Expeditions 43 and 44.

A pair of those investigations appear below, on GEN’s first-ever List of 10 experiments carried out in space with applications for human health or drug R&D. The 10 are among a sample of the hundreds of research topics and experiments carried out in space in recent years. Each experiment topic is listed alphabetically by its title, with additional information on purpose, partners, principal investigator(s) and other investigators/collaborators, dates and distinctions, and links for more information.

GEN’s List is not the first attempt at a top-10 of space experiments. Back in 2013, ISS Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D., posted her own “Top International Space Station Research Results Countdown” on NASA’s A Lab Aloft blog, focused on space station research and technology topics. Dr. Robinson’s top 10 ranged from bacterial pathogens to breast cancer, and included a way-out-there benefit of diet and exercise; the full list and background is available here.

Defining the Relation Between Biomarkers of Oxidative and Inflammatory Stress and Atherosclerosis Risk in Astronauts During and After Long-Duration Spaceflight (Cardio Ox)

Purpose: Provide a greater understanding of space-related cardiovascular disease risk; determine whether biological markers of oxidative and inflammatory stress are elevated during and after space flight and whether this results in an increased, long-term risk of atherosclerosis in astronauts.

Partners: NASA, Universities Space Research Association (USRA), Wyle Science Technology and Engineering Group

Principal investigator(s): Steven H. Platts, Ph.D., of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Co-investigator(s)/collaborator(s): Christian M. Westby, Ph.D. (USRA); Michael B. Stenger, Ph.D (Wyle); Stuart M. C Lee, Ph.D. (Wyle); Robert J. Ploutz-Snyder, Ph.D. (USRA); Scott M. Smith, Ph.D. (NASA)

Dates and distinctions: September 2013-ongoing; Assigned to ISS expeditions 37/38, 39/40, 41/42, 43/44, 45/46, and 47/48.


Heart Effect Analysis Research Team Conducting Fly Investigations and Experiments in Spaceflight (HEART FLIES)

Purpose: Using fruit flies to study space travel’s effect on astronaut cardiovascular systems. Ultimately, the work could lead to countermeasures to prevent or treat heart problems—both in space and on land.

Partners: Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center; Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute; NASA Ames Research Center

Principal investigators: Rolf Bodmer, Ph.D. and Karen Ocorr, Ph.D. (Sanford-Burnham), Peter H.U. Lee, Ph.D., (OSU Wexner, formerly of Stanford University), and Sharmila Bhattacharya, Ph.D., (NASA Ames)

Dates and distinctions: HEART FLIES returned safely to Earth after a full month aboard the ISS on May 18, 2014; First HEART FLIES mission launched aboard SpaceX-3’s unmanned Dragon spacecraft on April 18, 2014; First investigation to use the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, to study the effects of spaceflight on the structure and function of the heart

Links: (Bodmer lab website);;;

Higher Quality Protein Structures in Biomedical Research

Purpose: Grow protein crystals in space using research hardware commonly used by biotechnology companies.

Partners: NanoRacks; The Methodist Hospital Research Institute; Emerald Bio

Principal investigator(s): Carl Carruthers, Jr. of The Methodist Hospital Research Institute; Experiment conducted by Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut and Commander of Expedition 35 on ISS.

Dates and distinctions: Hubbard tweets: “Looking like stained glass, these are protein crystals, growing better in space than on Earth” on Twitter” on December 1, 2013; Successful results announced by NanoRacks on June 6, 2013.


Investigation of Host-Pathogen Interactions, Conserved Cellular Responses, and Countermeasure Efficacy during Spaceflight Using the Human Surrogate Model Caenorhabditis elegans (Micro-5)

Purpose: Better understand the risks of in-flight infections in space explorers during long-term space flight, using the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans (roundworm) with the microbe Salmonella typhimurium (that causes food poisoning in humans).

Partners: NASA; Arizona State University; BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado Boulder (payload Development and Implementation)

Principal Investigator: Cheryl A. Nickerson, Ph.D., Arizona State University. Co-Investigator(s)/Collaborator(s): Charlie Mark Ott, Ph.D., NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Dates and distinctions: Assigned to ISS expeditions 41/42, September 2014 through March 2015;


Microgravity Research on Therapeutic Targets

Purpose: Explore the effects of microgravity on crystallization of two challenging therapeutic targets implicated in cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Partners: Protein Bio, the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), NanoRacks, and Protein BioSolutions.

Principal investigator(s): Brian Hubbard, director of the Therapeutics Projects Group within the Broad‘s Center for the Science of Therapeutics.

Dates and distinctions: Partnership announced on January 8, 2014. Builds on research announced by NanoRacks in 2013 (See: Protein Structures in Biomedical Research in this List)


MicroRNA Expression Profiles in Cultured Human Fibroblasts in Space (Micro-7)

Purpose: Investigate how spaceflight affects the response of nondividing cells to DNA damage; Provide insight into how gene expression regulates cellular adaptation to spaceflight and the specific role of microRNA in this process.

Partners: BioServe Space Technologies, University of Colorado Boulder (payload developer); Space Biology Project at NASA Ames

Principal investigator(s): Honglu Wu of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Dates and distinctions: Returns safely to Earth after a full month aboard the ISS on May 18, 2014; Mission launched aboard SpaceX-3’s unmanned Dragon spacecraft on April 18, 2014; First spaceflight study of gene and microRNA expression in non-dividing cells


NanoRacks-Fluorescent Polarization in Microgravity (NanoRacks-Micro-gRx)

Partner(s): Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, NanoRacks

Purpose: Validate NanoRacks’ plate reader—initial experiments that will pave the way for advanced biology research and drug development in space.

Principal investigator(s): Siobhan Malany, Ph.D., and Steve Vasile, Ph.D. (both of Sanford-Burnham).

Dates and distinctions: Assigned to ISS expeditions 41/42, September 2014-March March 2015; Investigators carried out first use in space of plate reader technology, via installation in July 2012.

Links:;; See also: (pages 25-26).

Rodent Research Hardware and Operations Validation (Rodent Research-1)

Purpose: Examine how microgravity affects animals, providing information relevant to human spaceflight, discoveries in basic biology and knowledge that will have direct impact toward human health on Earth. Test the operational capabilities of new hardware system, including the Rodent Transporter, the Rodent Habitat, transfer systems, bone densitometer and experimental procedures

Partners: NASA Ames

Principal investigators(s): Ruth Globus, Ph.D., Rodent Research Project scientist and researcher in the Space Biosciences Division at NASA Ames

Dates and distinctions: Assigned to ISS expeditions 41/42, September 2014-March 2015; first mission to transport rodents to the space station aboard an uncrewed commercial vehicle, and the longest duration spaceflight rodent study to date conducted in a NASA facility.


Rodent Research Hardware and Operations Validation (Rodent Research–2)

Purpose: For first study (NASA-#1), “Impact of Spaceflight on Primary and Secondary Antibody Responses,” assess rodent immune response to an injected vaccine that activates the immune system similar to a viral infection; improve the current understanding of immune system changes in space, leading to the development of better countermeasures to protect crew health over the course of longer missions.

For second study (NASA-#2), “Implications for Elevated Intracranial Pressure,” assess the effects of the microgravity environment on the brain; provide valuable insights into neurological changes such as impaired vision and reduced cognitive abilities seen in crew members undergoing long duration space missions.

Partners: For NASA-#1, NASA Ames; Loma Linda University; Kansas State University. For NASA-#2, NASA Ames; Florida State University; University of Florida; Texas A&M University

Principal investigators(s): For NASA-#1, Michael J. Pecaut, Ph.D., Loma Linda University. Co-investigator(s)/Collaborator(s): Stephen Keith Chapes, Ph.D., Kansas State University; Dalia S. Gridley, Ph.D., Loma Linda University. For NASA-#2, Michael D. Delp, Ph.D., Florida State University. Co-investigator(s)/Collaborator(s): Bradley J. Behnke, University of Florida; David C. Zawieja, Ph.D., Texas A&M University

Dates and distinctions: Launched aboard SpaceX's sixth commercial cargo resupply flight, assigned to ISS expeditions 43/44, April 2015-September 2015; First operational deployment of the Rodent Habitat to the ISS after a successful proof of concept (See Rodent Research-1)


T-Cell Activation in Aging

Purpose: Investigate the genetic and molecular mechanisms that underlie diminished T-cell activation that both occurs in the aging population and also in astronauts.

Partners: NASA Ames; European Space Agency

Principal investigator(s): Millie Hughes-Fulford Ph.D., former NASA astronaut and researcher at NCIRE [formerly Northern California Institute for Research and Education], The Veterans Health Research Institute; University of California, San Francisco; and the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Dates and distinctions: Assigned to ISS expeditions 41/42, September 2014-March 2015; Assigned to ISS expeditions 39/40, March 2014-September 2014

Returns safely to Earth after a full month aboard the ISS on May 18, 2014; Mission launched aboard SpaceX-3’s unmanned Dragon spacecraft on April 18, 2014; First study to be conducted aboard the space station with funding from the NIH’s National Institute on Aging.



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