Heart Tissue Sent to Space Being Researched at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital

Posted on Jun 16, 2023

Laszlo Nagy, M.D., Ph.D., with two of the researchers on the project.

The 230,000-square foot Research and Education Building at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital is a source of hope and inspiration, housing the hospital’s institutes, grant-funded scientists, innovative graduate medical education programs, cutting-edge Center for Medical Simulation and Innovative Education, and Florida’s only accredited pediatric biorepository.

But most recently, it is home to engineered human heart tissues that launched into space aboard the Space-X CRS-27 to the International Space Station. Researchers are now using the expansive lab space, which includes microscopes, various measurements, tissue culture facilities and a lot of collaborative spaces, at Johns Hopkins All Children’s by processing and taking a deeper look into the heart tissue.

“This is a perfect example of our collaboration with Johns Hopkins Medicine, which is part of our mission,” says Laszlo Nagy, M.D., Ph.D., co-director of the hospital’s Institute for Fundamental Biomedical Research.

The study led by Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers, including doctoral student Devin Mair and Deok-Ho Kim, Ph.D., turned to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital for an additional collaboration to minimize the risks of compromising the tissue. They chose to drive the samples across the state of Florida from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida, to St. Petersburg instead of flying them to Baltimore. Visiting student, João Carlos Remelho de Freitas from the Nagy laboratory assisted Mair in processing the samples.

“Our building is a very important asset,” says Nagy. “Our Baltimore colleagues are all amazed at the quality of the infrastructure and the sources and quality of people here at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. It’s very important to emphasize that buildings don’t do science — people do.”

Kim, his postdoctoral researcher Jonathan Tsui, and Mair previously sent heart tissue into space in March 2020. Those experiments, presented at the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine International Society-Americas 2022 Annual Meeting, showed that microgravity in space changed the cells’ mitochondria and the tissues’ ability to contract. This means it could be a potential indicator of cardiac problems. 

“There are two real purposes of this research. The first half that NASA’s interested in is, ‘What are the effects of long-duration space flight on the human heart?’ because NASA hopes to establish a permanent moon base as well as trips to Mars, and we don’t currently understand what these impacts could have on the human heart,” Maier says. “The second part in the research is figuring out how we can prevent that, so we’re hoping that the drug panel that we selected prevents the damage we saw on our first space flight and will enable future space flights.”

A total of 96 tissues were sent up and treated with three FDA-approved medicines to the samples in efforts to prevent heart cell changes known or suspected to occur in those undertaking long-duration spaceflights.

“If we are able to treat it for microgravity, the same treatment could potentially be utilized for dosing the astronauts continuously during their space flight,” Maier says.

It is also possible that the study could inform how age-related cardiac problems are treated because the heart changes in space explorers mimic changes linked to heart muscle aging in general.

“It’s a very cool science, and just a nice embodiment of a collaborative effort which can result in significant findings,” Nagy says.

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