Leveraging Microgravity to Improve Medical Diagnostics – One Drop at a Time

NASA Astronaut Bob Behnken works within the Light Microscopy Module facility on the Capillary Driven Microfluidics investigation from 1Drop Diagnostics, Inc. (Credit: NASA)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. (CASIS PR) – What if a single drop of blood were all that is needed to provide reliable medical diagnostics in any setting on—or even off—Earth? This week, NASA astronauts Douglas  Hurley and Robert Behnken, who recently launched to the International Space Station (ISS) on the historic SpaceX Demo-2 mission, are working on an investigation from Boston-based biotech startup 1Drop Diagnostics to enhance a portable device that can run diagnostic tests from anywhere using just one drop of blood.

1Drop Diagnostics’ device contains specially designed microfluidic chips, and the company is doing research on the ISS to better understand fluid flow through the chips’ small channels. Results from the investigation, sponsored by the ISS U.S. National Laboratory, should allow 1Drop Diagnostics to improve chip design and function. Through their space-based research, 1Drop Diagnostics seeks to advance next-generation medical diagnostics that will reduce health care costs and provide better health outcomes for patients back on Earth.

Decentralizing Diagnostics

Currently, most point-of-care diagnostics require bulky, expensive equipment in a centralized laboratory. 1Drop Diagnostics aims to enhance the robustness, speed, and ease of use of medical diagnostics with a portable, affordable device that can be used in any setting—from a doctor’s office, pharmacy, or nursing home to remote field locations on Earth or even in space.

The company’s microfluidic chips are able to automatically detect multiple biomarkers once a drop of blood is applied. The drop activates a series of events driven by capillary fluid flow through small channels in the chips. The biochemical reactions taking place in the miniaturized chips occur in small volumes, which allows for increased test sensitivity and quicker results. Furthermore, all fluid processing steps are encoded in the chips, eliminating the need for additional equipment or manipulation.

Microfluidics in Microgravity

To gain a better understanding of how fluid flows through channels on a micrometer scale, 1Drop Diagnostics’ took their research to the ISS National Lab. The investigation launched on SpaceX’s 20th commercial resupply services mission in March and is supported by Ohio-based engineering services company ZIN Technologies. By leveraging microgravity-driven changes in fluid dynamics, 1Drop Diagnostics hopes to gain insight that will help improve fluid control in their microfluidic chips. Results from this research could also aid in the design of microfluidic chips that are portable and rugged because they function in any orientation and are better able to absorb shock.

The investigation from 1Drop Diagnostics is the second project that stemmed from the MassChallenge Boston Accelerator that NASA astronauts Hurley and Behnken have worked on since their arrival onboard the space station—the pair also worked on an investigation from Cam Med Inc. to enhance a new drug delivery device. Hurley and Behnken became the first astronauts launched to the space station through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program via the SpaceX Demo-2 mission in late May. This mission ushered in a new era in human spaceflight—representing the first time American astronauts were launched into orbit from U.S. soil in nearly a decade and the first time ever onboard a commercially owned spacecraft.