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Researchers study space’s effect on human heart tissue

Veronica Brezina



Devin Mair, a graduate student from the Baltimore campus carrying out experiments at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital on heart tissue samples sent to the International Space station. All photos were provided.

Researchers at St. Petersburg’s Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital (JHACH) are analyzing an engineered heart tissue that has returned from space.

The “tissue-on-a-chip” traveled to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX CRS-27 shuttle in March.

While housed at the ISS for 30 days, the Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins team was tracking the tissue to see the real-time impact space flights have on the cardiovascular system, as astronauts have experienced heart issues such as arrhythmia (an irregular heartbeat). 

When the shuttle returned to Earth earlier this month with the heart tissue, the research team didn’t want to risk flying the new heart tissue samples from Cape Canaveral to Baltimore. However, they needed immediate access to the samples and the new research building at the St. Petersburg campus, which boasts 40,000 square feet of lab space, was the perfect fit. 

“We are trying to process the sample very quickly to get the live samples, and then we will preserve them,” said Devin Mair, a graduate student from the Baltimore campus carrying out experiments at JHACH.

Mair picked up the heart tissue from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral and made the 150-mile journey to St. Pete. 

The container holding the engineered heart tissue. The team monitored the changes in the tissue by using sensors. 

The study Mair’s team is working on first kicked off in 2020. 

“After we determined what the impacts were, we decided to have a second mission testing [three different] drug treatments for heart tissue,” Mair said. 

The initial findings, presented at the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine International Society-Americas 2022 Annual Meeting, showed that microgravity in space changed the cells’ mitochondria and the tissues’ ability to contract.

“Many heart cellular changes detected in space explorers mimic changes linked to heart muscle aging in general,” Deok-Ho Kim, a professor of biomedical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a statement. 

“We found signs of mitochondria dysfunction [which can cause arrhythmias],” Mair said. 

The $1 million-plus heart tissue study was funded by NASA and the National Institutes of Health. 

Mair said he plans to pursue additional NIH funding for future missions that may entail studying the impact space travel has on other organs as well as its impact on aging. 

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