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European Space Agency signs first contract for biomedical applications research on board the International Space Station

Press Release From: European Space Agency
Posted: Friday, April 28, 2000

On 3 May 2000, the European Space Agency and researchers from academia and industry in Germany, Italy and Switzerland will sign a contract for a health research project which will lay the scientific and industrial foundations for the development of a space bioreactor for biomedical applications to be set up on the International Space Station. As Jörg Feustel-Büechl, ESA's Director of Manned Spaceflight and Microgravity points out: "This is the first in a series of over fifty contracts that ESA will sign in the coming years for application-oriented research projects that involve use of the International Space Station in the development of which Europe is participating, together with the USA, Russia, Japan and Canada."

A bioreactor is a cultivation vessel used in research laboratories and industrial production to grow bacteria, yeast or animal cells and, increasingly in the recent past, tissues. The one to be developed under this contract will be designed specifically for mammalian cell cultivation and will be used on the International Space Station to study the cultivation of medically relevant cells, tissues and organ-like structures, with particular emphasis on vessels and cartilage.

Millions of people every year suffer organ and tissue damage from diseases and accidents. Transplantation of tissues and organs from other human bodies is severely restricted by the limited availability of donors. Taking tissue samples from unaffected areas of a patient's own body, growing them in vitro, outside the patient's body, to a size and structure suitable for re-implantation into the body parts affected by organ or tissue damage is therefore seen as a promising alternative to the transplantation of foreign tissues and organs. Re-implantation also eliminates the fundamental problem of rejection of foreign tissues and organs by the patient's system. Growing tissue samples in vitro, i.e. in a bioreactor, is currently one of the major goals of medical research.

One of the possible applications of this technique is mass cultivation of biological implants to regenerate the meniscus and the articular cartilage of the knee. Cartilage regeneration is urgently needed by patients in their 20s to 50s, many of them with injuries from sports accidents. Demand for such implants in Europe alone is estimated at 100 000 cases a year. The principles of in vitro cell culture have been known for almost 100 years, but only in the last 10 - 20 years has the cultivation of mammalian cultures increased significantly, leading to the creation of the discipline of tissue engineering. These techniques are expected to revolutionise biomedical and surgical procedures in the near future.

Space research has potential to give a boost to tissue engineering. As compared to the normal gravity conditions on Earth, a weightlessness environment may provide much better conditions for obtaining proper three-dimensional cell structures. Over the past decade, evidence in the scientific literature has indicated that weightlessness (also known as "microgravity" in the scientific world) may become a surprising, unconventional and yet attractive medium for the generation of macroscopic tissue equivalents for a variety of basic and applied medical purposes.

The modular space bioreactor for growing medically relevant organ-like structures proposed by a European scientific and industrial research team under the coordination of Prof. Augusto Cogoli from the Swiss Federal Technical University (ETH) in Zurich will play an essential part in clarifying cellular and molecular mechanisms responsible for cell aggregation and differentiation control mechanisms and also in obtaining better pseudo-organs for possible clinical uses.

Prof. Cogoli's team comprises members from Switzerland, Italy and Germany: Dr Isabelle Walther from the Swiss Federal Technical University (ETH), Zurich (CH), Dr Werner Müller from the Sulzer Medica company in Winterthur (CH), Prof. Saverio Ambesi-Impiombato from the University of Udine (I), Dr Augustinus Bader from the Medical University of Hannover (D), Prof. Peter Bruckner from the University of Münster (D) and Dr Ralf Pörtner from the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg (D).

The modular space bioreactor project is one of over 50 microgravity applications projects for the International Space Station that the European Space Agency expects to initiate in the near future. The aim of these projects is to use the International Space Station as a vehicle for application-oriented scientific and industrial research to obtain data in space that will be needed for digital simulation on Earth or to give more insight into Earth-based industrial processes. With the availability of the International Space Station, examining specific applied research questions in the unique environment of weightlessness promises to be a rewarding long-term undertaking for industry.

This project is being sponsored by ESA's Microgravity Applications Promotion Programme and is being funded jointly with the participating scientific research institutes and industry. A major aspect of this programme is the setting-up of Europe-wide teams and networks involving partners from academia and industry working together on industrially relevant research. The aim is to initiate concrete industrial projects in which terrestrial research with industrial objectives and commercial funding, with the participation of researchers from scientific institutes, will be supported by ESA, including the sponsoring of space flight opportunities and associated ground-based activities.

Prof. Cogoli and his scientific-industrial team proposed the modular space bioreactor project in response to ESA's first Announcement of Opportunity for Physical Sciences and Biotechnology, issued in 1998 to invite scientists to submit research proposals for the International Space Station. ESA received 145 proposals in response to this announcement, a number for exceeding expectations. In a review of the proposals by independent peers, 6 were rated "outstanding", 26 were "highly recommended" and 30 were "recommended". Of these proposals, 31 dealt with application-oriented research, including thermophysical properties of liquid metals, advanced foams, biological tissue culturing, osteoporosis and combustion processes.

The peer review panel summarised its evaluation of the proposal made by Prof. Cogoli and his team in the following words: "The proposal for producing cartilage without using any scaffold structure is an outstanding and innovative approach. Because of the extremely high content of exopolymeric material in cartilage this may be the only way for in vitro production of a functional cartilage analogue. This approach cannot be done except under microgravity conditions. Only microgravity conditions will allow an appropriate cell contact that is stable in position while loose in cohesiveness."

Interested journalists are invited to attend the signature ceremony for the modular space bioreactor for growing medically relevant organ-like structures which will take place at the European Space Agency's Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) located at Keplerlaan 1, NL-2201 AZ Noordwijk (the Netherlands), on Wednesday 3 May, starting at 11:00 hours Central European Summer Time, with the following schedule:

  • 11:00 h Registration
  • 11:15 h Welcome address
  • 11:30 h Microgravity - a tool for fundamental and applied research
  • 11:50 h The Modular Space Bioreactor on the International Space Station - a first step towards the industrial production of artificial tissues and organ-like structures for medical applications using the space environment
  • 12:30 h Signing of contract
  • 12:45 h Interview opportunities for the media
  • 13:00 h Lunch
  • 14:30 h End of event

A summary of the event will be broadcast by the ESA Television Service (http://television.esa.int) on Thursday 4 May, from 16:00 h to 16:30 h Central European Summer Time, on the Eutelsat 2 F4 direct television satellite with the following transponder parameters:

Orbital position: 10 degrees East
Transponder: 22
Channel: 1 (digital, 9 MHz bandwidth)
Frequency: 11.134,75 MHz, horizontal polarisation
Mode: MPEG-2 (4:2:0), 5.632 Msymb/sec, FEC 3/4

Interested media representatives are invited to attend the event.

For further information and for confirmation of attendance, please contact:

Heidi Graf
ESA/ESTEC Public Relations Office
Tel: +31 (71) 565 3006
Fax: +31 (71) 565 5728

For questions about the research project itself journalists can also make direct contact with ESA's Biotechnology Applications Coordinator, Dr Roger A. Binot, and the researchers involved in the bioreactor project:

Dr Roger Binot, ESA/ESTEC, Noordwijk (NL), tel: +31 (71) 565 4815

Prof. Saverio Ambesi-Impiombato, University of Udine (I), tel: +39 (0432) 559 203

Dr Augustinus Bader, Medical University of Hannover (D), tel: +49 (511) 906 3510

Prof. Peter Bruckner, University of Münster (D), tel: +49 (251) 835 5591

Prof. Augusto Cogoli, ETH Zurich, tel: +41 (1) 445 1270

Dr Werner Müller, Sulzer Medica, Winterthur (CH), tel: +41 (52) 262 8256

Dr Ralf Pörtner, Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg (D), tel: +49 (40) 7718 2886

Dr Isabelle Walther, ETH Zurich, tel: +41 (1) 445 1280

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