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Project Profile: Integrated Space Stem Cell Orbital Research

Stem cell research lab will be added to International Space Station

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Facility name and location: Integrated Space Stem Cell Orbital Research (ISSCOR), Lexington, Kentucky (eventually the International Space Station)

Cost: NASA recently awarded a three-year, nearly $5 million award that is allowing Space Tango and their researcher partners at the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center at UC San Diego Health, Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine to develop the ISSCOR Laboratory International Space Station (ISS) and launch three collaborative research projects within it.

Project team: Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center at UC San Diego Health, Space Tango

Completion date: 2025

ST-42—an autonomous microgravity manufacturing facility designed to operate in low Earth orbit and reenter Earth's atmosphere.
Space Tango

The Integrated Space Stem Cell Orbital Research (ISSCOR) Laboratory will be located within the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory. In 2005, Congress designated the U.S. portion of the ISS as the nation's newest national laboratory to maximize its use for improving quality of life on Earth, promoting collaboration among diverse users, and advancing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. 

"The Integrated Space Stem Cell Orbital Research (ISSCOR) Laboratory within the International Space Station (ISS) provides a platform to enhance existing and develop innovative technologies that will drive academic, philanthropic, and industry demand for utilization of low Earth orbit (LEO) capabilities. The development of these capabilities provides an opportunity to apply the power of stem cells to develop more robust stem cell research derived diagnostics and therapeutics for degenerative diseases and devastating injuries," says Jana Stoudemire, commercial innovation officer for Space Tango, Inc.

Automated systems that will be used on-orbit to support the ISSCOR laboratory stem cell translational research in microgravity will be designed and built by the Space Tango engineering team located in Lexington, Kentucky. The ISSCOR Laboratory will incorporate existing capabilities available on station, along with newly developed state-of-the-art capabilities that are currently being designed and built by Space Tango. Existing capabilities include Space Tango's TangoLab facilities, permanently installed systems on ISS that house modular CubeLabs that support automated cell culture on the ISS that can be remotely controlled from the ground.  Space Tango's Powered Ascent Utility Locker (P.A.U.L) capabilities will also be used to transport CubeLabs to and from the ISS. "We envision that the next thriving ecosystem of commercial stem cell companies, the next nexus for biotechnology will be created 250 miles overhead by the establishment of the ISSCOR capabilities on orbit," says Stoudemire.

The Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center at UC San Diego Health has developed stem cell breakthroughs and translational research that has successfully created new stem cell companies and clinical trials, says Stoudemire. The UC San Diego approach of using collaborative, multi-disciplinary interactions to enable leading scientists to work side by side with leading physicians in a facility designed to achieve breakthrough discoveries have been exceptionally successful terrestrially. 

Space Tango engineers install CubeLabs in the P.A.U.L. (Powered Ascent Utility Locker) facility in preparation for launch.
Space Tango

Space Tango works with the design and development of automated systems for discovery research, and manufacturing in microgravity, with a mission to create significant new market segments in the space economy to improve the lives of people on Earth. "Space Tango has significant expertise in designing and building automated flight hardware for use in microgravity.  Our typical development cycle incorporates a series of engineering validation tests conducted on the ground and on orbit that will be conducted prior to the use of automated systems in the ISSCOR laboratory," says Stoudemire. The company's first platform, TangoLab-1, was installed on the ISS in August of 2016; the second facility which flew on SpaceX CRS-12, was installed in August 2017. In November 2018 Space Tango unveiled plans for its ST-42 scalable manufacturing platform which is envisioned as an autonomous free-flying facility for on-orbit manufacturing of technology and biomedical products. "Space Tango’s focus on automation, minimizes crew time, requiring astronauts only to install CubeLabs into the TangoLab facilities on ISS.  This allows affordable access to research and manufacturing in microgravity, improved consistency, and flexibility, as well as higher throughput and remote-control access for any required adjustments. The UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering is also developing engineering capabilities and facilities that will provide additional operations and potential control center for future ISSCOR research in microgravity. Additionally, Space Tango is developing additional core imaging facilities for use on ISS by astronauts," says Stoudemire.

Space Tango and its partners at the UC San Diego/Sanford Consortium in La Jolla, California, are working to establish a new on-orbit biomedical sector for stem cell advancement, with a fully operational self-sustaining orbital laboratory anticipated by 2025. The team is working to refine current hardware capabilities and process flow, extending the capabilities of ground-based laboratories with regular access to the ISS via secured flight opportunities.

NASA Astronaut Drew Feustel (left) and ESA Astronaut Alexander Gerst (right) prepare to install Space Tango’s CubeLab modules.

"We are excited by the opportunity this exceptionally strong partnership between leading stem cell researchers and private space companies are providing to create a self-sustaining orbital laboratory by 2025. This is a key project that supports NASA's goal of establishing public-private partnerships that will create a robust commercial space economy in low-Earth orbit, and an initiative that stands to provide significant advancement of stem cell science for patients," says Stoudemire. "We envision that the ISSCOR capabilities being developed on ISS will be eventually transitioned to future private space station platforms under development by groups like Axiom Space that Space Tango is currently working with to maintain a presence in low Earth orbit beyond the ISS."