Emulate's organs-on-a-chip head to the International Space Station to study gravity's pull on the brain

Small cellular models of human tissue can help researchers better understand how the body reacts under rare conditions. Now, Emulate’s organ-on-a-chip will help explore one of the rarest of all: how the human brain works in microgravity.

The company’s tissue-based chips are slated to head to outer space to be the subject of a suite of experiments performed on the International Space Station. Afterward, they’ll be compared to chips that remain on terra firma to see how Earth’s gravity—or the lack of it—impacts brain cells and possibly cognitive function.

Typically used in preclinical research to gauge the brain’s response to potential new drugs—such as in collaborations with AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Covance—Emulate’s Brain-Chip packs five types of neural and vascular cells into microfluidic channels about the size of a thumb to mimic the inner workings of the blood-brain barrier.

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The space-bound chips will allow researchers to measure gene expression and immune system responses as if the cells were active in a living body, including interactions between cortical neurons, astrocytes, pericytes and microglia.

“By comparing the human Brain-Chip response to an inflammatory stimulus under reduced gravity conditions versus its response back on Earth, we will be able to investigate differences in cytokine production, [blood-brain barrier] permeability and morphology,” Emulate’s chief technology officer, Daniel Levner, said in a statement

“Previous studies, such as NASA’s Functional Immune study, have shown changes in endothelial cell morphology in 2D cultures in space as well as many changes in astronaut immune function during spaceflight,” Levner added.

Emulate's lung-on-a-chip
Emulate’s organs-on-a-chip contain microfluidic
channels lined with model blood vessels and
human cells. (Emulate)

The experiment, backed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will include 12 chips housed in a piece of equipment about the size of a shoebox, containing everything needed to automatically maintain the cells’ microenvironment and conduct dosing and sampling.

Launched as part of the Tissue-Chips in Space initiative sponsored by the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, the logistics of getting the experiment off the ground and to the space station will be handled by Emulate’s partner, Space Tango.

RELATED: Organ-on-a-chip maker Emulate secures $82M to expand scientific, commercial efforts

Emulate has previously unveiled chips that model the colon and intestines, geared toward diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, as well as the lung, kidney and liver.

In September, the company raised $82 million to boost its scientific and commercial efforts. Those funds are slated to help develop new chips for studying immunology, cancer and more as well as to extend Emulate’s commercial reach in the Asia-Pacific region through deals with two new distributors.

“Several leading indicators validate our belief that organ-on-a-chip technology will dramatically transform the entire drug discovery and development pipeline and ultimately eliminate unnecessary animal testing,” Emulate CEO Jim Corbett said in a statement after the series E round.