Siobhan Malany, Ph.D., selected to conduct novel medical research in space
Siobhan Malany, Ph.D., director of Translational Biology at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute at Lake Nona (SBP) and founder of the Institute’s first spin-off company, Micro-gRx, Inc., has been awarded $435,000 to study atrophy in muscle cells in microgravity on the International Space Station (ISS). In microgravity, conditions accelerate changes in cell growth similar to what occurs in the aging and disease process of tissues. Using real-time analysis, Malany will be able to rapidly study cells for potential new therapeutic approaches to muscle degeneration associated with aging, injury or illness.
The research project was awarded to Micro-gRx by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which operates under a cooperative agreement with NASA. Micro-gRx will partner with Space Tango, a Kentucky-based microgravity research company that will manage the flight operations of the cell samples to the ISS National Lab. Space Pharma, an Israeli-based company will supply the ‘lab-on-a-chip’ or a miniaturized lab able to culture cells and measure cell changes over time.
“I’m thrilled to have been selected for this research project because of the sheer potential for new discoveries and drug therapies that can result,” says Malany, who also led a research project on the ISS in 2012 to analyze molecular processes in microgravity using fluorescence detection. “Disease modeling using human cells has become a focal point in medical research because it accelerates disease-specific drug discovery. We anticipate that there will be significant funding opportunities in this area in the years to come.”
The research experiment will involve the collection of human skeletal muscle cell samples that will be integrated into the lab-on-a-chip and replicate muscle weakness that occurs with aging. Malany will closely study what happens to myoblasts which are precursors for muscle fiber and important for skeletal muscle regeneration following injury or disease.
Samples of human cells acquired in collaboration with the Florida Hospital – SBP Translational Research Institute for Metabolism and Diabetes (TRI-MD) will enable this first-of-its-kind research in space; similar research has been conducted using bone cells derived from mice. Malany will also measure gene expression changes (changes in how genes are made into proteins or RNA) post-flight on samples when they return to earth.
According to Malany, the project will take 18 months to two years to complete. Micro-gRx will hire a scientist trainee to assist with the research. Through a corporate sponsored research agreement, the project will be conducted at SBP and at the TRI-MD.
Micro-gRx, Inc. was established in 2015 with seed funding from Space Florida. Malany adds that her company’s award also proves that the region’s space commercialization opportunities are far-reaching. “We’ve seen a great deal of momentum in recent months around space research and business development,” says Malany, referring to OneWeb’s announcement to build and launch satellites and Blue Origin’s new commercial space facility. “We’re going to continue to see significant happenings around medical-research-in-space as well.”