The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) today announced two projects have been awarded from a joint solicitation focused on transformative tissue engineering research onboard the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory. Through this partnership, CASIS and NASA will facilitate hardware implementation and on-orbit access to the ISS National Lab. NSF will fund the selected projects to advance fundamental science and biomedical engineering knowledge. CASIS is the nonprofit organization responsible for managing and promoting research onboard the ISS National Lab. NSF supports transformative research to help drive the U.S. economy, enhance national security, and maintain America’s position as a global leader in innovation.

This solicitation sought proposals for fundamental and transformative research in biomedical engineering under the NSF Engineering of Biomedical Systems Program for one of four topic areas:

·         Development of validated models of normal and pathological tissues and organ systems that can support development and testing of medical interventions;

·         Design of systems that integrate living and non-living components for improved diagnosis, monitoring, and treatment of disease or injury;

·         Advanced biomanufacturing of three-dimensional tissues and organs; or

·         Design and subsequent application of technologies and tools to investigate fundamental physiological and pathophysiological processes.


Key to this solicitation was the requirement that the projects demonstrate the need and benefit of being conducted within the unique microgravity environment of the ISS. This marks the third in a series of collaborations between NSF and CASIS to explore research concepts on the ISS National Lab, with the first two focused on the physical sciences (fluid dynamics and thermal combustion).

“NSF values our collaboration with CASIS, which empowers U.S. researchers to make important science and engineering discoveries in the microgravity environment onboard the ISS National Laboratory,” said NSF Assistant Director for Engineering Dawn Tilbury. “With these new experiments in space, NSF grantees will help us answer fundamental questions about tissue growth and engineering that cannot be studied on Earth and can help improve lives.”

Below are highlights of the two selected investigations that will evolve into flight experiments to the ISS U.S. National Laboratory:

Tissue Engineered Muscle in Microgravity as a Novel Platform to Study Sarcopenia
Palo Alto Veterans Institute for Research
Principal Investigator: Ngan Huang

Sarcopenia results in progressive deterioration of skeletal muscle with age, leading to increased risk of frailty and poor health outcomes. As the incidence of sarcopenia is expected to rise in the elderly population, identifying cost-effective interventions that improve muscle formation and health is a major public health challenge. Efforts to identify potential drugs have been hindered by sarcopenia’s slow progression in clinical studies. Microgravity is known to accelerate the process of aging and muscle disuse. Therefore, by taking advantage of the microgravity environment aboard the ISS National Lab, it will be possible to develop a tissue engineered model of sarcopenia. Once validated, this model can be used to study the progression of muscle deterioration and serve as a useful platform for testing potential treatments in a short period of time. The overarching hypothesis is that engineered skeletal muscle in microgravity mimics relevant features of sarcopenia. This platform has the potential to improve the quality of life of patients with sarcopenia or other muscle wasting diseases.

Liver Tissue Engineering in Space
University of California-San Francisco
Principal Investigator: Tammy Chang

End-stage organ failure is the irreversible and fatal impairment of a vital organ, such as the heart, lung, kidney, or liver. End-stage organ failure affects millions of people. The current treatment is organ transplantation, which is severely limited by a shortage of donor organs. Scientists have been trying to tissue-engineer organs outside of the body that can be used as replacements for failing organs, but these efforts have been challenged by the difficulty of creating networks of small blood vessels that can perfuse large pieces of tissue. Studies have shown that when cells are given the freedom to organize and assemble themselves in microgravity, they establish important cell-cell relationships and can form tissue structures such as capillary tubes. In this research, using the liver as a model organ, the research team will investigate how microgravity conditions onboard the ISS may be used to facilitate development of a large, vascularized tissue graft. The researchers hypothesize that a combination of factors, including the microgravity environment unique to the ISS, will produce a functional and vascularized liver tissue. The research results will include a time-lapse video of how the different cell types organize themselves in response to a growth factor gradient in microgravity. This will allow investigators to better understand how microgravity regulates tissue formation.

The ISS National Lab has supported multiple research investigations within the fields of stem cells, regeneration, and tissue engineering. Soon, several experiments focused on tissue chips and similar biomedical engineering payloads will launch to the ISS National Lab to take advantage of the unique space environment. To learn about those experiments and more, please visit: .

To learn more about this funding opportunity, view the full proposal solicitation via the NSF Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems Division of the Engineering Directorate,