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Three Techshot-Managed Research Campaign Launching on SpaceX Dragon

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
March 4, 2020
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Astronaut and USU graduate Drew Morgan with BFF. (Credit: NASA)

GREENVILLE, Ind. (March 2, 2020) – Commercial space company Techshot Inc., will send equipment and samples supporting plant, heart and cartilage research for three of its customers to the International Space Station (ISS) on SpaceX mission CRS-20. Scheduled to launch at 11:50 p.m. EST on March 6 from space launch complex 40 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the unpiloted cargo spacecraft is expected to arrive at the orbiting laboratory two days later. Techshot customers on board CRS-20 include NASA, Emory University, and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU).

“This is our most diverse manifest to date,” said Techshot President and CEO, John Vellinger. “Throughout March we’ll be conducting three major investigations in space for three customers using three very different Techshot-built research devices. It’s going to be a busy month, but we’re excited to see the results.”

Astronauts on board the station will use Techshot’s 3D BioFabrication Facility (BFF) – mounted inside the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory (ISS National Lab) since last summer – to manufacture human knee menisci for the 4-Dimensional Bioprinting, Biofabrication, and Biomanufacturing, or 4D Bio3 program. Based at USU, 4D Bio3 is a collaboration between the university and The Geneva Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that advances military medical research.

This first experiment for 4D Bio3 will be used as a test of the materials and the processes required to print a meniscus in space. Techshot engineers will upload a design file to BFF from the company’s Payload Operations Control Center in Greenville and evaluate the success of the print via real-time video from inside the unit. Biomaterials for a second meniscus print, which will be returned to Earth for more extensive testing, will launch on a later SpaceX mission.

“Meniscal injuries are one of the most commonly treated orthopedic injuries, and have a much higher incidence in military service members—reported to be almost 10 times that of the civilian population,” said Dr. Vincent B. Ho, Director of 4D Bio3 and professor and chair of radiology at USU. “We successfully biofabricated 3D human medial and lateral menisci in a pilot study performed in Africa last summer and anticipate learning valuable lessons on the challenges and benefits of biofabrication in microgravity by performing a similar experiment on the space station.”

Another complex Techshot-managed experiment launching on board SpaceX CRS-20 will test whether a heart-specific stem cell, called a cardiac progenitor, multiplies better in space, and if more of them become heart muscle cells known as cardiomyocytes. 

Techshot’s customer, Dr. Chunhui Xu, is an associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine who studies heart cells, with the goals of improving treatments for congenital heart disorders and improving the heart’s ability to regenerate after injuries.

Astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor loading experiment modules into an MVP. (Credit: NASA)

Human cardiac tissues can’t repair themselves once damaged from disease. Repairing a failing heart by cell therapy requires a large number of cardiomyocytes, which can be converted from stem cells cultured in two dimensions in Earth-based laboratories. Without the pull of gravity, it is expected that culturing in three dimensions in space, inside specialized Techshot cell culture experiment modules, will increase the yield of high-quality heart muscle cells. Learning more about why this happens could lead to new strategies for reproducing the same results on a much larger scale on Earth, lowering costs and enabling more patients to receive needed cardiac cell therapies.

Once the cargo spacecraft reaches the station, the 12 Techshot experiment modules will be removed from the Dragon spacecraft and inserted by the crew into the company’s Multi-use Variable-gravity Platform (MVP) unit number two mounted in the Japanese space laboratory known as Kibo. Half of the modules will be installed inside MVP on a carousel that will spin, reproducing Earth’s gravity and providing a 1 g control group, with six identical modules placed inside the same unit on a second carousel that will not spin. An identical MVP unit is installed in Destiny, the American laboratory.

“We are thankful for Techshot’s engineers who designed the Multi-use Variable-gravity Platform hardware and will help us maintain constant communication with the astronauts during the flight operation,” said Dr. Xu. “Their professionalism and collaboration with our team have contributed tremendously toward our overall research efforts.”

Astronaut Christina Koch loading water into a PONDS device. (Credit: NASA)

And finally, also launching aboard SpaceX CRS-20, is a technology demonstration of 12 Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System, or PONDS, plant growth devices. First prototyped by NASA Kennedy Space Center, Techshot and Tupperware Brands worked together to further develop the concept and manufacture spaceflight-qualified PONDS units. Red romaine lettuce will be grown in the devices, installed inside two of the space station’s identical plant growth chambers – each called Veggie. The PONDS units are being tested in two different configurations, each representing approaches refined from two previous flight tests. For this demonstration, lettuce is expected to grow in space for 21 days.

About Techshot

Founded more than 30 years ago, Techshot Inc., operates its own commercial research equipment in space and serves as the manager of three NASA-owned ISS payloads – such as the Advanced Plant Habitat. The company provides its catalog of equipment and services for a fee to those with their own independent research programs – serving as a one-stop resource for organizations seeking access to space. ​

Techshot is an official Implementation Partner for the ISS National Lab, and it has agreements with NASA that provide it access to space cargo transfer services and assistance from the on-orbit crew. The company is headquartered in Greenville, with a satellite office at the Space Life Science Laboratory at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.