What does microgravity do to the lungs?

Tissue samples from NASA’s lung experiment have arrived back from the International Space Station and are now under analysis.

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The Lung Tissue experiment, headed by Professor Joan Nichols, cultured different types of lung cells in controlled conditions aboard the International Space Station (ISS) so that scientists can observe how gravity affects growth and specialisation as cells become new lung tissue.  

The project has two objectives:

1. In Space: to understand any damaging effects of microgravity on the lungs so that astronauts remain healthy, particularly during extended space flight

2. On Earth: to investigate microgravity as a more favourable environment for growing cells into tissue for lung transplants

For the experiment, Nichols and her team developed tiny in vitro models of human lung tissue which were flown to the ISS in live culture bags kept at 37 degrees Celsius. The cells were then cultured for 5 weeks, sampled at given time points, and frozen until returned to Earth for analysis. 

The samples are now back and are currently being examined at the University of Texas Medical Branch. 

Joan Nichols is Professor of Internal Medicine, and Microbiology and Immunology and the Associate Director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She is particularly interested in how lungs repair themselves and how to bioengineer human lungs to replace lost or damaged tissue.

Poster image by NASA: astronaut Randy Bresnik works with bioreactor bags containing lung tissue samples aboard the ISS.

Ruth Milne

Past Springer Nature Staff Member, Springer Nature