TTUHSC El Paso and UTEP Team Up for International Space Station Research

Project will examine microgravity’s effect on heart tissue

Munmun Chattopadhyay, Ph.D., M.Sc.

Munmun Chattopadhyay, Ph.D., M.Sc.

Biomedical research scientists from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso and The University of Texas at El Paso are partnering up to send “artificial mini-hearts” to the International Space Station to better understand how microgravity affects the function of the human heart.

The three-year project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the space station’s U.S. National Laboratory, brings together TTUHSC El Paso faculty scientist Munmun Chattopadhyay, Ph.D., and UTEP biomedical engineer Binata Joddar, Ph.D. The researchers will collaborate in their Earth-bound labs to create tiny (less than 1 millimeter thick) heart-tissue structures, known as cardiac organoids, using human stem cells and 3D bioprinting technology.

The project is one of just five research proposals selected by the NSF and ISS National Lab in 2019 as part of the organizations’ second collaboration on tissue-engineering research. The NSF recently awarded Dr. Chattopadhyay $256,892 and Dr. Joddar $259,350 for their roles in the project.

Dr. Chattopadhyay is an assistant professor in TTUHSC El Paso’s Center of Emphasis in Diabetes and Metabolism, part of the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine’s Department of Molecular and Translational Medicine. Dr. Joddar is an assistant professor in the UTEP College of Engineering and leads research in the university’s Inspired Materials and Stem Cell-Based Tissue Engineering Laboratory.

By exposing the organoids to the near-weightless environment of the orbiting space station, the researchers hope to gain a better understanding of a health condition known as cardiac atrophy, which is a reduction and weakening of heart tissue. Cardiac atrophy often affects astronauts who spend long periods of time in microgravity. A weakened heart muscle has difficulty pumping blood to the body, and can lead to problems such as fainting, irregular heartbeat, heart valve problems and even heart failure. Cardiac atrophy is also associated with chronic disease.

During the project's second year, the research team will prepare the heart organoid payload for a rocket launch and its mission in space.

During the project’s second year, the research team will prepare the heart organoid payload for a rocket launch and its mission in space.

“Cardiac atrophy and a related condition, cardiac fibrosis, is a very big problem in our community. People suffering from diseases such as diabetes, muscular dystrophy and cancer, and conditions such as sepsis and congestive heart failure, often experience cardiac dysfunction and tissue damage,” Dr. Chattopadhyay said.

The first year of the project, which began in September, will focus on research design. During this phase, Dr. Joddar will use 3D printing to fabricate the cardiac organoids by coupling cardiac cells in physiological ratios to mimic heart tissue. The second year will be centered on preparing the organoid payload for a rocket launch and mission in space. The third and final year of the research will involve analyzing data from the experiment after the organoids are returned to Earth.

The project will also provide an educational opportunity for the El Paso community, with a workshop for K-12 students to learn about tissue engineering projects on the space station. It will also include a seminar for medical students, interns and residents about the benefits and challenges of transitioning research from Earth-based laboratories into space.

Dr. Chattopadhyay said she is excited to be part of a collaborative effort with her colleague Dr. Joddar that will literally take their Borderland biomedical research to new heights.

“Knowledge gathered from this study could be used to develop technologies and therapeutic strategies to better combat tissue atrophy experienced by astronauts, as well as open the door for improved treatments for people who suffer from serious heart issues due to illness,” Dr. Chattopadhyay said.