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VA Palo Alto’s Huang Lab sends research to International Space Station

Dr. Huang with two colleagues holding up a banner that reads Cardinal muscle NG-16

We see superheroes regenerate and people beat ageing in many sci-fi movies, but how close are we to bringing these technologies into reality?

The work performed in Dr. Ngan Huang’s lab at VA Palo Alto Health Care System (VAPAHCS) is a good start. Her team’s latest research is now onboard the International Space Station (ISS) to see if microgravity is a better environment to study the effects of “muscle wasting” with her engineered tissue samples.

On Earth, scientists have been studying syndromes like sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss, which are a normal but gradual process in the human body that begins as early as 30 years old. It is most prominent in people older than 60, leading to them becoming frail with an increased risk for falls and less chance of recovering from diseases.

In space, scientists have seen astronauts often experience the same type of muscle loss within days. With the absence of gravity, they must keep a strict workout regimen to keep their muscles from deteriorating in the weightless environment. There are many studies looking to counteract this effect so humans can go deeper into space for longer without hurting their bodies in the process.

Enter Dr. Ngan Huang, a biochemical engineer and principal investigator at VA Palo Alto, who is already engineering muscle tissue to help Veterans who have experienced traumatic muscle injuries. Her lab has made great strides in this field but knew it would be a long time before they saw any promising results in treatment for conditions like sarcopenia because of the time it takes to see progress.

A joint program between the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (manager of the ISS U.S. National Laboratory) specifically looking for projects in the field of tissue engineering was their opportunity to make this happen.

“As we learned more about microgravity through this program, we were excited to see if our engineered muscles can mimic the qualities of sarcopenia at an accelerated pace,” said Huang.

Working with an implementation partner, BioServe Space Technologies, they developed customized bioreactors to house the samples and created guides for the astronauts to fulfill experiments on the ISS. Once complete, the samples will be preserved until the next payload can pick them up and bring them back to Earth, possibly in October 2021.

“Our hopeful outcome of this particular experiment is that we will determine if these muscles have similar qualities to actual tissue samples from people who have sarcopenia,” said Dr. Huang. “This will give us a powerful platform to expand drug screening for a number of different diseases that normally take a long time to study, including cardiovascular disease or osteoporosis.”

The dream behind the science

Dr. Huang grew up in New York to an immigrant Chinese family and was the first in her family to get her Ph.D. and become a professor. She always had a fascination with space and even interned for a summer with NASA during college.

However, Dr. Huang went on to complete her BS in Chemical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed by a PhD in bioengineering from the University of California Berkeley & University of California San Francisco Joint Program in Bioengineering.

She is now an Assistant Professor for Cardiothoracic Surgery and, by courtesy of Chemical Engineering, for Stanford School of Medicine. She also serves as a Biochemical Engineer and Principal Investigator for the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.

Dr. Huang has authored over 90 publications and patents, while receiving numerous honors, including a NIH K99/R00 Career Development Award and a Rising Star award at the Cell & Molecular Bioengineering conference. Her research is funded by the NIH, Department of Defense, California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, American Heart Association, and Department of Veterans Affairs.

While she has done so much here on Earth, this opportunity was a way for her to still contribute to space science.

“Being a mother, I’m hoping my children and other inspiring scientists see that if I can participate in space research, they will realize the sky is not the limit and even gravity is not the limit!” said Dr. Huang.

Visit the Ngan Huang Research Lab website to learn more about her groundbreaking work