Monthly Archives: February 2011

From Macro to Nano – A New Microscope on the International Space Station

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Thisweek’s guest blogger, Dr. Peter Boul, shares some of the exciting facilitydevelopments for the International Space Station National Laboratory with thereaders of A Lab Aloft.

World-class research on the InternationalSpace Station would not be possible without a dedicated suite ofstate-of-the-art laboratory facilities and the project scientists that helpacademic researchers to use them. These are the resources that make experimentspossible and are invaluable to microgravity scientists.

The LightMicroscopy Module (LMM) is a case-in-point for a state-of-the-art facilityenabling high-impact scientific research. This module features a lightmicroscope capable of supplying images of samples on the space stationmagnified by up to 100 times their actual size. These images are digitallyprocessed and relayed back to Earth, where remote control of the microscoperesides. This allows flexible scheduling and control of physical science andbiological science experiments within the Fluids Integrated Rack or FIR on the spacestation. The present LMM will provide high-resolution images of samples andtheir evolution. In the near future, the LMM will produce 3-dimensional digitalimages, with the future addition of a confocal head for the microscope.

NASA astronaut T. J. Creamerperforming operations with the Constrained Vapor Bubble
or CVB investigation using the Light Microscopy Module.

(Image courtesy of NASA)

Dr. William Meyer, who works with scientistsaround the country to develop and complete their investigations using the LMM,recently gave a talk highlighting the microscope at the 2010 conference for theAmerican Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics, known as AIAA. Accordingto Dr. Meyer, “the LMM is going to provide insights into many classes ofsamples because it provides a microscopic view of samples, which does notrequire theory to provide a bridge to understand what is going on [at themicro- and nanoscales].” 

This 3-Dimage displays some LMM-ACE confocal imaging goals.
(Image courtesy of Dr. Peter Lu, Harvard)

APowerful Lens to Microscale Phenomena in Microgravity

The LMM concept is a modifiedcommercial research imaging light microscope with powerful diagnostic hardwareand interfaces. It creates a cutting edge facility that enables microgravityresearch at a microscopic level.

There are a variety of differentphysics, biology, and engineering experiments already scheduled to use the LMM.One such experiment, the Constrained Vapor Bubble experiment orCVB, is a jointcollaboration between NASA and Peter C. Wayner, Jr., Ph.D. of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. CVBinvestigates heat conductance in microgravity as a function of liquid volumeand heat flow rate to determine the heat transport process characteristics in acurved liquid film. The data from this experiment may help scientists andengineers develop reliable temperature and environmental control systems forinterplanetary travel. The information from CVB may also lead to improveddesigns of systems for cooling critical components in microelectronic devices hereon Earth.

VisualizingMolecular Machines

The LMM can also facilitate studies innanotechnology and nanomaterials. Understanding and predicting the forcesbetween nanoscale particles is critical in the design of nanoscale materials. Thescience community is interested in learning more about the forces that regulatemolecular machines, which are crafted for integrationinto new materials and new medicines.

To this end, researchers such as Dr.David Weitz and Dr. Peter Lu with Harvard University, Dr. Paul Chaikin with NewYork University, Dr. Matthew Lynch with Proctor and Gamble, and Dr. Arjun Yodhwith the University of Pennsylvania, along with NASA Glenn Research Center areworking together to conduct a series of Advanced Colloids Experiments or ACE. This investigation looks at howorder arises out of disorder, colloidal engineering, self-assembly, and phaseseparation. Some of the early microgravity colloids work demonstrated used modelingatoms with hard-sphere colloids to understand this idea of order arising fromdisorder. The ACE experiments may give scientists a better description of themagnitudes of the forces that operate on the nanoscale and how to control them.The potential applications from this work are vast and may apply to such topicsas the design of molecular and biomolecular machines, nanoelectromechanicalsystems, and methods for enhancing the shelf-life of medicines and foods.

Using the LMM facility is just one wayin which an investigator can employ the station to pave a path to success in spaceresearch. Investigators now have a wide variety of instruments at theirdisposal on this orbiting laboratory. The outlook for the International SpaceStation National Laboratory is bright and ready to contribute to the next generationof great discoveries in science.

MoreFunding Opportunities

The LMM is a fixed facility on the space station and is available for use forlaboratory experiments. National Laboratory investigators can use this facilitythrough agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, the NationalScience Foundation, and the Department of Energy. Researchers who wish to seetheir experiments on the space station can find out how to take advantage ofthe opportunity to use facilities, such as the LMM, by visiting the NationalLaboratory For Researchers Webpage. For specific questions, contact the help line at281-244-6187 or e-mail

Dr. Peter Boul
NASA’s Johnson Space Center
International SpaceStation Program Science Office

Dr.Peter Boul is the Physical Science and External Facilities Specialist in the InternationalSpace Station Program Scientist’s Office. He is an author to numerous patentsand peer-reviewed publications in nanotechnology. Dr. Boul earned his Ph.D. inchemistry under the tutelage of 1996 Nobel Laureate, Prof. Richard E. Smalley.Following his doctoral studies, he was granted a 2-year postdoctoral fellowshipfrom the French government to work with 1987 Nobel Laureate, Prof. Jean-MarieLehn, in dynamic materials.

Tissue Engineering and the International Space Station

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This week, comments from guest blogger,medical doctor, engineer, and astronaut, Dr. David Wolf, as he reflects on tissueengineering in space.

The InternationalSpace Station National Laboratory has an edge for doing unique experiments inmedicine and biotechnology that are not possible anywhere else—we can “turnoff” gravity. As we gear up to fully use the station, the emerging field oftissue engineering is one of our high-value targets. This is a particularlypromising area of study where microgravity research has already made advancesin basic science. Indications are that further work will lead to importantapplications in clinical medicine on Earth.

Building onthe groundwork from earlier programs, biotechnology research on the spacestation, and associated ground-based research in emulated microgravity, hascreated a large body of information. This data collection demonstrates thevalue of controlled gravity systems for assembling and growing 3-Dimensional livingtissue from individual cells and substrates. The NASA-developed Space Bioreactorprovides a core in-vitro capability both in space and on Earth.

Dr. Wolf, on SpaceStation Mir, repairing a faulty valve in the Space Bioreactor,
an instrument for precisely controlling the conditions enabling the culture of 3-D
human tissues in microgravity.
(NASA image)

On Earth,these bioreactors are unique in that they are able to emulate, within limits,the far superior fluid mechanical conditions achieved in space. One may thinkof this Space Bioreactor as a 3-D petri plate. The core of the instrumentationis a rotating fluid filled cylinder, the culture vessel, producing conditionsinside resembling the buoyancy found within the womb. And much like in thehuman body, this vessel is surrounded by a life support system performing thefunctions of the heart and lung, achieving the precisely controlled conditionsnecessary for healthy tissue growth. The importance of this culturetechnique is that fluid mechanical conditions obtained in microgravity—and emulatedon Earth—allow the growth of tissues in the laboratory that cannot be grown anyother way. Emulated microgravity on Earth, and to a much greater degree, the actualmicrogravity of spaceflight enable an extremely gentle and quiescent fluiddynamic environment. The cells and substrates are free to organize into 3-Dtissues without the need to introduce disruptive suspension forces from bladesor stirring mechanisms. This leads to a broad array of applications based onenhanced in-vitro tissue culture techniques.

Theground-based versions of the Space Bioreactor produced very high fidelity colontumors for cancer research, providing strong indications of the value of actualmicrogravity, see Figure 1. Even so, when I first put space grown tissuesamples under the microscope, while aboard the Space Station Mir, I wasastounded! In my many years of experience culturing tissues, I had never seenany so well organized, so healthy, and with such fine structure. Nerve derivedtissue from the adrenal gland was forming long fronds of exceptionally delicatetissue, see Figure 2. What I was seeing could never form on Earth, even in ourstate-of-the-art systems that emulate microgravity.

Figure 1, Anartificially produced colon cancer tumor produced
under emulated microgravity on Earth is composed of millions of
cancerous cells forming a 3-D configuration, much like that
which would form in the human body. Work conducted at NASA
in collaboration with Dr. Kim Jessup.
(Image courtesy of Dr. David Wolf)

Figure 2, Neural-derivedadrenal tissue from a pheochromocytoma –
grown in actual microgravity. Photomicrograph taken by Dr. David Wolf
in work conducted on Mir in collaboration with Dr. Peter Lelkes.
(Image courtesy of Dr. David Wolf)

NASA researchin the Space Bioreactors produced over 25 U.S. patents and the technology isconsidered state-of-the-art for ground-based tissue culture. Scientists aroundthe globe from the National Institutes of Health or NIH, medical centers, and universitieshave produced numerous peer reviewed publications in highly respected journalsand even more patents based on the fundamental principles. Other actualspaceflight research has been successfully used to study breast cancer and prostatecancer. NASA has licensed its patents to spin-off companies including Synthecon, Inc., for commercialmanufacturing of the equipment, and Regenetech,Inc., for regenerative medicine and stem cell applications. These companieshave in turn sublicensed the technology even more broadly, enabling widespreaduse of this NASA-developed technology.

Researchers onEarth use this technology to study cancer, stem cells, diabetes, cartilagegrowth, nerve growth, skin, kidney, liver, heart, blood vessels, infectiousdisease—virtually every tissue in the body. The applications go much furtherthan engineering implantable tissue, to include vaccine production and living ex-vivoorganic life support systems, such as artificial livers. Researchers at the NIH,for instance, used the methods to propagate the HIV virus, responsible forAIDS, in artificial lymph node tissue—itself sustained in the bioreactor. This resultedin the ability to study the virus life cycle under controlled conditions,outside the human body.

But we arenot done. While very capable on Earth, the performance of Earth-boundbioreactors is still limited by the presence of gravity. Spaceflight testing onMir and the space shuttle demonstrate that the growth of larger, better functioning,and more organized tissue may be obtained under true low gravity conditions. Todate, the Space Bioreactor has been exploited primarily for basic research. Duringthe intervening time, the field of medicine has evolved a firm vision towardstrue regenerative tissue technology. In recent years, powerful molecular biologytechniques provided a detailed biological knowledge, which permits understandingcellular machinery almost like micro-machines. This convergence of technologywith the space station laboratory opens a new chapter for space biotechnology.

The InternationalSpace Station National Laboratory now provides an unprecedented opportunity tothe biotechnology community. Within NASA, scientists continue to work to build theinfrastructure to enable the biotechnology community; to help them take thenext steps in exploiting controlled gravity in-vitro systems. The vision is toteam together the very best minds and institutions, leveraging their abilitiesto advance regenerative medicine. Such advances can lead to improving ourquality of life on Earth and serve as a lasting legacy of the space station era.

Dr. David Wolf is anastronaut, medical doctor, and electrical engineer. Having traveled to spacefour times, Dr. Wolf participated in three short-duration space shuttlemissions and a long-duration mission to the Russian Space Station Mir. A nativeof Indianapolis, he participated in seven spacewalks, and the SLS-2 Life SciencesSpacelab Mission, logging over 4,040 hours in space. He received the NASAExceptional Engineering Achievement Medal, the NASA Inventor of the Year Award,among multiple recognitions for his work in advancing 3-D tissue engineeringtechnology.