Midbrain organoids from the interdisciplinary BRAINS project have successfully launched towards the International Space Station. After more than a year of intense preparation since being selected by the “Überflieger 2” competition, the team of five students from the University of Luxembourg watched the launch of their experiment on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket live at the Kennedy Space Centre last night.
The BRAINS (Biological Research using Artificial Intelligence for Neuroscience in Space) project aims to understand the growth of midbrain 3D cell cultures, also called organoids, in microgravity and is the first scientific experiment from Luxembourg to be conducted on the ISS.
Apart from the biological aspect of the experiment, mainly performed by Elisa Zuccoli and Daniela Vega Gutiérrez at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB), the team required extensive expertise in the field of space robotics from the Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT). Once docked to the ISS and connected to a power source, the experiment must operate fully autonomously without intervention from the busy astronauts. For this, José Delgado, Aelyn Chong Castro and Lina María Amaya Mejía developed the “CUBE LAB”, an automated miniature laboratory that regularly supplies the cell cultures with fresh nutrients and maintains a stable temperature of 37°C allowing them to hopefully grow into more complex structures than on Earth.
“Being able to launch our experiment to the ISS is an amazing opportunity and I’m extremely proud of what the team has achieved over the last year,” exclaims Elisa, leader of the BRAINS team.
A year of planning and logistics
Besides the scientific work required to develop the CUBE LAB and grow the 3D organoids, sending an experiment to the ISS brings many logistical challenges. The final preparations of the cell culture and CUBE LAB needed to be made in the laboratories of the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. This meant that the team, their cell cultures and supplies had to safely travel to the United States two weeks before the launch. “Everything had to be meticulously planned. We needed to ship the organoids and supplies beforehand but also plan for backup organoid cultures in case anything got lost or damaged during the trip”, Elisa explains.
All this planning paid off, as the first shipment of cell culture media got lost in transit. Luckily, a backup shipment arrived in time. After final checks, including software and hardware tests and the sealing of the Cube for the vacuum test, the fully prepared CUBE LAB was handed over to SpaceTango, the company in charge of loading it onto the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for the launch to the ISS.
What’s next for the BRAINS Team?
After 30 days on the ISS, the culture media will be automatically replaced with a fixation solution that preserves the experiment until it returns to Earth and the LCSB laboratories in Luxembourg. Here the organoids will be analysed and compared to the experiment performed on Earth. Using high-content microscopy and Artificial Intelligence to compare the samples, the team can analyse if the midbrain organoids behaved differently in space.
“We hope that our organoids will grow larger and less densely packed in the microgravity on the ISS”, explains Daniela. “We are trying to improve this research model to gain further insights into neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease,” she adds.
Such comprehensive 3D cell models are already being used for various applications in disease modelling and drug screening procedures in the field of regenerative medicine and the pharma industry. Organoid models which more closely resemble their physiological counterparts could, in the future, also reduce or replace the need for animal experimentation in biological and pharmacological research.
Apart from the Überflieger 2 competition, the BRAINS Team would like to thank their respective research groups, with their supervisors Prof. Jens Christian Schwamborn from the Developmental and Cellular Biology group, Prof. Miguel Olivarez Mendez and Dr Carol Martínez Luna from the SpaceR research group, for their support and guidance. They also thank the following sponsors: Banque Internationale de Luxembourg (BIL), SciPharm Luxembourg SARL, Foyer Assurances SA, Technoport SA, Amis de l’Université du Luxembourg and SES.
About Überflieger 2
The interdisciplinary BRAINS project was selected as one of four projects by the jury of the Überflieger 2 competition. The bi-national competition was organised by the German Space Agency (DLR), the Luxembourg Space Agency (LSA), the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft (PDG), and Yuri GmbH. Alongside the BRAINS team, student projects from the Leibniz Universität Hannover, the Universität Stuttgart and the Technische Universität München were selected.