SpaceX’s Falcon 9 spacecraft that took off several days ago from the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida (USA), on his way to the International Space Station, he carried unorthodox luggage among his cargo, even for the most experienced astronauts: a sample of human muscle cells grown in the laboratory by the scientists of the MicroAge project.
And if surprising is the most surprising luggage, it is still the reason why it was loaded on board the SpX-24 mission. Its leaders hope that it can help us understand aging better and answer a crucial question in a world in which the demographic winter winds blow strongly: Why do muscles weaken when we get older?
Taking advantage of the effects of microgravity
The ambitious goal of MicroAge researchers —Shipping specialists in different disciplines from the University of Liverpool, European space agencies and Kayser Space Ltd — is conduct microgravity experiments aboard the International Space Station. With the information gathered taking advantage of the special conditions of the ISS, they hope to better understand how the muscles of the elderly and astronauts respond to exercise.
“Astronauts in Microgravity lose their muscle mass and strength at an accelerated rate compared to older people on Earth, providing a unique model to quickly determine the mechanisms underlying muscle loss not only in astronauts, but also with relevance to older people ”, explains Professor Anne McArdle, Liverpool University Institute of Medical Sciences and Life Cycle.
For several years the team has been investigating the reason for the gradual loss of muscle mass and strength that accompanies age. Thanks to the particular conditions that will be found in the ISS and with the help of the crops, they hope to shed new light on this issue. Total –details the website of the University of Liverpool– will send into space 24 autonomous experimental units containing “mini muscles” grown from human muscle cells.
Not all samples will have the same fate. Some will be stimulated with electricity with the purpose of generating contractions in the muscles; others will remain exposed to higher amounts of heat shock protective proteins, which –according to previous studies by researchers– help against age-related muscle wasting.
Once the experiments are finished, the muscles will freeze for their return to Earth. As detailed by the British Government, which supports the project, the cells are the size of grains of rice and will be placed on 3D-printed supports. To ensure that they will survive the changes in temperature, vibration, and g-force During the launch, special hardware was developed.
To prepare the test and allow the cells to grow before launch, the Liverpool scientists traveled to the Kennedy Space Center in the United States. The MicroAge project is funded by the UK Space Agency and is supported by the country’s Executive, which highlights that its objective is “Help live longer and healthier lives”.
“When astronauts spend time in space, without the effects of gravity, your muscles weaken, as in old age, before recovering when they return to Earth. By studying what happens to muscle tissue in space, the team can compare the findings with what happens on Earth. ” he argues: “This will help solve the riddle of why muscles weaken as we age and look for ways to prevent it ”.
An ambitious mission that is already underway.