First cell culture experiments completed on space station
Posted: September 10, 2001

The first cell culture experiments aboard the International Space Station have been successfully completed, and the crew is preparing for the first in-depth study of lung function in space.

Expedition Three Commander Frank Culbertson preserved colon, kidney, neuroendocrine and ovarian cell cultures, which will be returned to Earth on the Space Shuttle in December. Investigators are studying both normal and cancerous cells, which may grow in low gravity more like they grow in the human body.

The space station as viewed by the departing space shuttle crew last month. Photo: NASA
"We were pleased with Culbertson's dedication to the experiment and that he executed on-orbit operations to complete the experiment so precisely," said Dr. Neal Pellis, the program manager for this cellular biotechnology experiment at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. "This crew's attention to intricate, hands-on experiment operations greatly enhances our ability to get useful science results."

While completing the first cell culture experiment on the Station, Culbertson worked closely with the team at the Payload Operations Center at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

On Tuesday, Sept. 4., Culbertson removed the remaining cultures from the Biotechnology Specimen Temperature Controller. Since cell growth began on Aug. 22, the incubator kept the cells at a constant temperature required for cell growth. During three separate sessions, Culbertson removed cells from the incubator, preserved them and placed them in the Biotechnology Refrigerator.

Before preserving the cultures, Culbertson used a Portable Clinical Blood Analyzer - similar to those doctors use in hospitals to check blood samples -- to check the health of the cells and growth media. Then, he used syringes to inject a chemical preservative or fixative in the cell cultures. Once all the cell cultures were removed, the incubator was powered off on Tuesday.

All 24 cell cultures grown on Expedition Three are now stored in the Biotechnology Refrigerator.

"The important on-orbit procedures have been completed," said Pellis. "Now our job is to see that the cells get to the investigators for analysis."

In early December, the Shuttle will return the Expedition Three cultures to scientists on Earth and bring more cultures to the Station for another set of experiments that will be performed during Expedition Four. During the next expedition, kidney cells will be cultured again, and leukemia cells will be cultured on the Station for the first time.

For Expedition Three, four separate investigations are being carried out as part of the Cellular Biotechnology Operations Support System, or CBOSS. On Earth, most cells grown in cultures form flat, thin specimens that do not allow scientists to examine how the cells work together.

The CBOSS culture system is an interim platform for cell-based research aboard the Space Station that will be used until the permanent Biotechnology Facility is delivered to the Station. This experiment is managed by NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and is part of the Microgravity Research Program at the Marshall Center.

As the cell experiments were finished, the crew started preparations for the first long-term study of human lung function in space. On Wednesday, Sept. 5, they did a routine check out of the Gas Analyzer System for Metabolic Analysis Physiology (GASMAP). This is located in the Human Research Facility and will be used for the Effects of EVA and Long-Term Exposure to Microgravity on Pulmonary Function (PuFF).

The crew will breathe into the GASMAP for a series of five lung function tests that measure the exchange of gas in the lungs and detect changes in respiratory muscle strength. The experiment also studies how Extravehicular Activities or spacewalks affect lung function.

A better understanding of the effects of gravity - or lack of gravity - on human lungs may also benefit clinical medicine on Earth. Gravity influences the way the lungs operate and may even exaggerate some lung disorders, such as emphysema and tuberculosis. The principal investigator for this research is Dr. John West of the University of California in San Diego.

Last week, the crew members also completed the first activities for the Renal Stone investigation that studies a possible countermeasure for preventing kidney stone formation. They completed diet logs and collected urine samples. Previous data have indicated that exposure to microgravity may increase the risk of kidney stone development during and immediately after space flight. During Expedition Three, the crew is testing potassium citrate as a possible therapy for minimizing renal stone development.

Many experiments also continue to study physical systems, such as fluid and crystal samples. In the past week, the Experiment on Physics of Colloids in Space conducted three 12-hour runs. Two of these runs were used to calibrate the laser that provides data on the colloid samples. A colloid is a system of particles suspended in a fluid. Common examples are paint, milk and ink.

During the third experiment run, the first rheology measurements on sample 8, the colloidal glass sample, were made. A rheology measurement is accomplished by lightly oscillating a crystallized sample within its sample cell, while performing laser light scattering to examine the vibratory response of the crystal. This determines the shear modulus of the crystal, providing more information about the nature of colloidal crystals being grown on the Station.

This marked the last run of the initial colloid investigations. Upcoming runs will focus on rehomogenizing the AB6 and AB13 binary samples and beginning much more detailed measurements on them.

Commands are sent to the colloids experiment from NASA's Glenn Research Center's Telescience Support Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Microgravity research may yield insights that could lead to engineering new colloid products on Earth.

A group of scientists at the University of Alabama in Birmingham are sending commands to the Dynamically Controlled Protein Crystal Growth experiment to control the crystallization rate of biological samples, which are now forming crystals. This experiment is the first experiment to allow scientists to control the growth rate of the biological crystals. Using nitrogen gas, the scientists can adjust the evaporation rate of the solution surrounding the forming crystals. Analysis of crystals grown in space may provide insights into numerous biological processes on Earth, with applications ranging from medicine to agriculture.

On Tuesday, the crew also installed the shaker device on EXPRESS Rack 2 for the Active Rack Isolation System ISS Characterization Experiment (ARIS-ICE). This Thursday, engineers will collect measurements with the "shaker" device to further define the system's ability to protect delicate microgravity experiments from specific higher frequency vibrations. ARIS-ICE will measure the rack's ability to prevent the shaking motion from disturbing experiments housed in the rack.

Test runs for this experiment are primarily commanded from the ground by investigators working at two telescience centers located in Houston, Texas, and Seattle, Washington. ARIS activities are coordinated with the Payload Rack Officers or PROs, who work in the Payload Operations Center at Marshall.