MicroAge experiment at University of Liverpool

Human muscle cells to be launched to ISS for ageing study

Image credit: University of Liverpool

Tiny human muscle cells will be launched into space for an experiment, called MicroAge, which aims to understand what happens to them as they age. It is hoped that the study could contribute to people living longer and healthier lives.

In preparation for the launch, lab-grown human muscle cells, the size of grains of rice, have been put into small 3D-printed holders. Once in orbit, they will be electrically stimulated to induce contractions in the muscle tissue while being observed.

On the ISS, the muscle cells will not experience the effects of gravity; spending extended periods of time in microgravity causes astronauts’ muscles to weaken, as they do with ageing, before recovering on return to Earth. University of Liverpool researchers, funded with £1.2m from the UK Space Agency, will investigate what happens to muscle tissue in space and compare this with the effects of natural ageing. Knowledge gleaned from the study will help solve the puzzle of why muscles lose mass and strength with age, and hopefully develop ways to counteract the process.

“Ageing is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century and we will learn a great deal about how muscle responds to microgravity and ageing from the data we obtain from this study,” said Professor Malcolm Jackson of the University of Liverpool. “The team has had to work extremely hard over the last three years to overcome the many challenges of sending our science into space.”

“For example, the electronic equipment necessary to undertake these studies usually fills a large desk but we have managed to shrink this to the size of a pack of cards. This development work on automated and miniaturised systems represents an exciting innovation that could have a wider application in the future.”

Kayser Space, which is based at the Harwell Space Cluster in Oxfordshire, designed and built the specialist hardware to protect the cells as they undergo potentially huge changes in temperature, vibration, and G-force during launch. MicroAge is the company’s third payload delivered to the ISS this year. Kayser Space managing director David Zolesi said: “We are thrilled to have our hardware ready for launch, after three years of fantastic work in cooperation with a top-level team of scientists and the UK Space Agency.”

MicroAge is due to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida at 10am GMT on Tuesday 21 December, with the launch and operation provided by ESA. The experiment will be returned in January 2022 for further analysis. The MicroAge app will give updates on progress, as well as links to information, podcasts, activity packs, and information on healthy ageing and other aspects of the study.

Science minister George Freeman commented: “The research of our scientist astronauts like Tim Peake on muscle loss in the microgravity of space is helping identify potential cures for musculoskeletal disease, which causes agony to millions and costs the NHS billions.”

“By harnessing the unique environment of the [ISS] our pioneering scientists could help us all live healthier, stronger lives.”

MicroAge is the second experiment funded by the UK Space Agency flying to the ISS. The first, which launched in June, saw Nottingham and Exeter University scientists send thousands of tiny worms to live on board the space station to help understand spaceflight-induced muscle decline. A third, under development at the University of Strathclyde, is due to be launched in October 2022 and will study how complex fluids behave in microgravity.

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