Organs on a Chip Experiments Will Investigate the High Rate of Infections in Astronauts

On April 25, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch cargo to the space station and two organs-on-a-chip experiments designed by University of Pennsylvania scientists. They want to understand why so many astronauts get infections while in space. NASA has reported that 15 of the 29 Apollo astronauts had bacterial or viral infections. Between 1989 and 1999, more than 26 space shuttle astronauts had infections.

Huh and his team have created two separate experiments for this first launch. The first essentially mimics an infection inside a human airway, to see what happens to the bacteria, and the surrounding cells, in orbit. Huh’s BIOLines lab created the actual chips.

A lung chip is made of a polymer, and a permeable membrane is the platform for the human cells. For the lung-on-a-chip, one side of the membrane is coated with lung cells, to process the air, and capillary cells on the other, to provide the blood flow. The membrane is stretched and released to provide the bellows-like effect of real lungs.

A bone marrow chip contains whole human bone marrow cells, and blood vessels that have been created to mimic what’s in the body. The bone marrow test aims to observe how the marrow the source of the white blood cells the body sends out as the first line of defense against infection behaves in space. The team is looking for the speed of the activation and movement of neutrophils, the most abundant type of white blood cells, in response to the same bacteria, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, that is used to infect the airway cells.

The results will help researchers better understand what’s happening. Do the bacteria multiply faster in the airway? Do the neutrophils respond more slowly? Or is there something else going on?

SOURCES- University of Pennsylvania
Written By Brian Wang

6 thoughts on “Organs on a Chip Experiments Will Investigate the High Rate of Infections in Astronauts”

  1. Being stuffed in an enclosed environment for months at a time could be a major contributing factor.

  2. NASA astronauts are riddled with herpes, and they become virus producing factories when they get up there. It’s must be all over the ISS by now, floating around for all to inhale, sharing isn’t always caring.

  3. there are likely multiple mechanisms involved, both endogenous and exogenous.

    First astronauts are exposed to high degrees of radiation, far higher than on earth. That can result in immunosupression due to interference in white blood cell production in the bone marrow just like acute radiation poisoning on earth.

    secondly I’d venture that the aerosolization of bacteria is easier is zero g and thus more likely for a minimumly infective dose of bacteria to enter the respiratory tract. These species are mostly part of the normal human flora and are opportunist. They’re coming onboard if we like it or not.

    third as neutrophil (not to mention the many other lymphocytes) need to recognize the pathogen, migrate to and accumulate in sufficient quantities at the site of infection, zero g may interfere with one or multiple steps this critical immune response process.

    certainly investigations into these mechanisms of infection is necessary for long term space travel. A systemic acute bacterial infection occurring in space would likely be fatal due to the lack of supportive care otherwise available in the hospital ICU, especially as death or serious complications occurs within the days of symptoms. These infections are happening in at high rates astronauts who are at peak state of health preflight: that shouldn’t be. Especially pseudomonas which is pretty hardy and nasty bug to treat.

  4. Off hand I’d guess that it’s at least in part due to the fact that dust doesn’t settle in zero g.

  5. Or is it something happening at a different scale, such as changes in the way microbes move through the air in zero G?

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