Cutiss sends skin cells to the International Space Station

The International Space Station is, in the words of writers Alice Gorman, Ph.D., and Justin St. P. Walsh, Ph.D., “smelly, noisy and awash in dead skin cells.”

The sounds and smells of the ISS may not be up for scientific analysis, but skin cells are. Swiss bioengineering firm Cutiss launched skin cell experiments to the ISS on March 14 on SpaceX CRS-27, the same mission that ferried up heart-tissue-on-a-chip projects from Stanford and Johns Hopkins universities.

Though these are Cutiss’ first studies on the ISS, the company has been considering space-based research since 2018. As the maker of denovoSkin, an artificial skin bioengineered from a patient’s own skin cells, Cutiss has a vested interest in understanding why wound healing is slower in space. The company is starting by sending up cell cultures, which may eventually be followed by samples of denovoSkin, Chief Innovation Officer Vincent Ronfard, Ph.D., told Fierce Biotech Research.

“Because we are interested in producing skin from humans and putting it back on humans, it will be interesting to put these cells first and then denovoSkin in space and to do the same experiments on Earth, then try to compare,” Ronfard said.

The initial round of experiments will look at different dimensions of wound healing. One set of cultures contains wounded tissue, and the scientists will focus on how long it takes a wound to close in microgravity. The second set will be used to study how extracellular matrix formation and collagen production differs between space and Earth. The projects will remain on the space station for four weeks before they’re returned. “We needed to do something simple where we could get more information,” Ronfard explained. 

The scientists also hope to take some lessons from the process of optimizing the experiments for spaceflight and microgravity. The cells are housed in microfluidic chips, which are placed in small, flat boxes that supply all the nutrients they need to grow, divide and migrate. Eventually, the techniques could make their way into the company’s product development process. We learned much more about microfluidic technology,” Ronfard said, referring to what all the company had to do just to prep the experiments for space. “That could help us for the development of future products for Cutiss.”

The studies are being conducted through a partnership with SpacePharma, a space-focused biomedical research organization that develops experiments in microgravity. Cutiss designed the experiments and supplied the cells; SpacePharma designed the equipment needed to run them aboard the ISS, like boxes that contain the microfluidic chips. “Basically, we’re combining their technology of being able to send cells to space with our knowledge in biology,” Ronfard said.

While Cutiss is likely among the first pharmaceutical companies to look at wound healing in space—if not the first—the cosmetic industry has been studying it for some time. Colgate-Palmolive’s brand PCA Skin previously sent experiments to the ISS to learn how microgravity impacts skin cell gene expression.

It’s not yet clear how or whether the results of the research will influence Cutiss’ product development pipeline. The findings could be useful for helping astronauts better understand what happens to their skin in microgravity and perhaps even form the basis of new therapies designed for space use cases.

And comparing the wound healing process in space to what happens to cells on Earth could open up new paths for earthbound patients, Ronfard said.

“For instance, different gene expression, different ways of cell migration, cell division, things like that, we may see something new,” he explained.

For Cutiss, the studies are a chance to go beyond the bench into uncharted territory, where new horizons may give way to shifts in perspective and, ultimately, new discoveries. “There are two ways of research: One is very organized, but you’re always in the mainstream, and the other is that you’re opportunistic and you say, ‘Okay, let’s try,’” Ronfard said. “When you don’t set too many boundaries, you may find new things that are important.”