Originating Technology/NASA Contribution
The International Space Station (ISS) is falling. This is no threat to the astronauts onboard, however, because falling is part of the ISS staying in orbit.
The absence of gravity beyond the Earth’s atmosphere is actually an illusion; at the ISS’s orbital altitude of approximately 250 miles above the surface, the planet’s gravitational pull is only 12-percent weaker than on the ground. Gravity is constantly pulling the ISS back to Earth, but the space station is also constantly traveling at nearly 18,000 miles per hour. This means that, even though the ISS is falling toward Earth, it is moving sideways fast enough to continually miss impacting the planet. The balance between the force of gravity and the ISS’s motion creates a stable orbit, and the fact that the ISS and everything in it—including the astronauts—are falling at an equal rate creates the condition of weightlessness called microgravity.
The constant falling of objects in orbit is not only an important principle in space, but it is also a key element of a revolutionary NASA technology here on Earth that may soon help cure medical ailments from heart disease to diabetes.
In the mid-1980s, NASA researchers at Johnson Space Center were investigating the effects of long-term microgravity on human tissues. At the time, the Agency’s shuttle fleet was grounded following the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and researchers had no access to the microgravity conditions of space. To provide a method for recreating such conditions on Earth, Johnson’s David Wolf, Tinh Trinh, and Ray Schwarz developed that same year a horizontal, rotating device—called a rotating wall bioreactor—that allowed the growth of human cells in simulated weightlessness. Previously, cell cultures on Earth could only be grown two-dimensionally in Petri dishes, because gravity would cause the multiplying cells to sink within their growth medium. These cells do not look or function like real human cells, which grow three-dimensionally in the body. Experiments conducted by Johnson scientist Dr. Thomas Goodwin proved that the NASA bioreactor could successfully cultivate cells using simulated microgravity, resulting in three-dimensional tissues that more closely approximate those in the body. Further experiments conducted on space shuttle missions and by Wolf as an astronaut on the Mir space station demonstrated that the bioreactor’s effects were even further expanded in space, resulting in remarkable levels of tissue formation.
While the bioreactor may one day culture red blood cells for injured astronauts or single-celled organisms like algae as food or oxygen producers for a Mars colony, the technology’s cell growth capability offers significant opportunities for terrestrial medical research right now. A small Texas company is taking advantage of the NASA technology to advance promising treatment applications for diseases both common and obscure.
In 2002, Houston-based biotechnology firm Regenetech Inc. (then called BioCell Innovations) acquired the licenses for the NASA bioreactor and a number of related patents for use in the burgeoning field of adult stem cell research. (Unlike ethically controversial embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells are harvested from sources such as blood and bone marrow.) Employing a novel business model that takes advantage of sponsored research agreements with major medical institutions like the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Regenetech was able to begin testing and adapting the bioreactor’s capabilities for use with human stem cells with a first year budget of only $100,000. A NASA Space Act Agreement that saw the company share resources with Goodwin at Johnson, as well as additional licensing agreements between the company and the Agency, enabled Regenetech to further complement the bioreactor with its own proprietary improvements.
Regenetech has built upon its licensed NASA technology to create a thriving intellectual property business that is providing researchers with the tools to make adult stem cell therapy viable for the public.