The InVitroBone research teams from Italy and France recreating the exact same experiment – minus the microgravity – as a control study to compare results at ESA’s Life, Physical Sciences and Life Support Laboratory at its ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.
Preparing the cells, structure, syringes, fluids and so on is a painstaking job that needs to be done meticulously for scientific value. The facility was into space on the SpaceX Dragon cargo ferry to the International Space Station. The facility is the size of a desk drawer and held two sets of three experiments that monitored bone cells as they reacted to spaceflight in different conditions.
The less time the bone cells spent on Earth, the better for the scientific results, so the researchers had to get everything ready for the last possible moment – 32 hours before liftoff. Working backwards from that moment required careful planning, coordination and practice.
The consortium wanted to see if the Irisin protein that has been found to increase bone and muscle growth on Earth works in space too. The results can give clues to how the protein works and might one day be used by astronauts to help them stay healthy. Other experiments looked at how human stem cells turn into bone-forming cells – or adipocytes – in microgravity, this is fundamental to understand what is happening in astronaut’s bones.
The facility is automated, requiring only electricity to run, so astronauts simply moved it from Dragon’s cargo hold to the US Destiny laboratory during its 35-day stay in space. Inside, the cells were fed with fluids at set times all while being monitored from Earth.