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Central Floridians Heading To Space This Weekend. Well, Just Their Muscle Cells

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The miniaturized laboratory plugs into the International Space Station and allows scientists to study live human cells in space. Photo: University of Florida

Some Central Floridians are heading to space this weekend — well, just their muscle tissue. It’s part of an experiment heading to the International Space Station. University of Florida researchers are conducting an experiment on the orbiting lab looking at muscle degradation in microgravity. The experiment is launching on SpaceX’s CRS-21 mission, scheduled for Saturday from Kennedy Space Center.

Researchers at AdventHealth collected the tissue samples from local test subjects that will grow on tiny chips once installed on the station. Researchers expect the findings to help astronauts with muscle loss in deep space missions and to better understand how older people lose muscle mass as they age here on Earth.

The central Florida-collected cells will grow on small chips about a quarter the size of a credit card, all tucked away in a shoe box-sized autonomous experiment housing. The cells will grow for about 14 days, then they’ll return to Earth for further study.

WMFE’s Brendan Byrne spoke with Advent Health’s Dr. Paul Coen, a researcher on the experiment:


DR. PAUL COEN: There’s a lot of interest in understanding why this happens, and a lot of interest in developing countermeasures to the loss of muscle mass and strength. This lab on a chip technology will allow us to study the effects of microgravity on the cells themselves, not just the tissue, not just the muscle tissue, but the muscle cells themselves.

BRENDAN BYRNE: Tell us where you got these cell samples from? these are these are local folks, right?

DR. COEN: That’s right. Yes. At the Translational Research Institute, we do clinical research in aging, obesity, and type two diabetes. One of the things we do in our studies is take small biopsies or tissue samples from from leg muscles from the vastus lateralis. And so, for this study in particular, we recruited a number of younger and older individuals. We did muscle biopsies on the vastus lateralis. We isolated muscle cells. So the cells that we’re sending into space actually come from a number of our study volunteers, local folks here from Orlando.

I can tell you generated a lot of interest. We have no problem recruiting for this study when they found out that there’s a possibility that their their muscle cells could go into space.

BYRNE: So these muscle cells on this experiment are going to help future astronauts deal with long duration missions in microgravity. Is there any kind of application for health down here on earth?

DR. COEN: Absolutely. So the muscle loss that astronauts experience is very similar to the type of muscle loss that occurs during aging. So as we age, we gradually lose muscle mass and strength, and it can lead to mobility limitations, and eventually loss of mobility. So that’s a really serious healthcare issue. The the information that we generate from these experiments on the International Space Station will help us develop countermeasures not just for the loss of muscle mass in astronauts, but also in our older folks who are growing older and growing slower as they grow.

BYRNE: Space Research is always exciting because it starts with a rocket launch. I’m wondering what your mood is just a few days before launch?

DR. COEN: I can tell you I’m quite excited and a little bit nervous. The rest of the of the team as well. I think our experience is similar feelings. The team is really led by Siobhan Delaney, associate professor at the University of Florida College of Pharmacy, and yeah, the team is really excited.

We’re scheduled to take off Saturday and there’s a lot of work that goes into preparing these tissue chip experiments. We’re hoping that the flight will go ahead, the launch will go ahead on Saturday. And there’s a lot of excitement amongst the team members.


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Brendan Byrne

About Brendan Byrne

Space Reporter and 'Are We There Yet?' Host

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration. Brendan is a native Floridian, born and raised in Broward County. He moved to ... Read Full Bio »