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University of Chicago students take on NASA challenge to help hearts work better in space

The team’s findings could help earthbound people with heart conditions, too, with organ transplants and stem cell regeneration of the heart.

University of Chicago students Riley Hurr, Caitlin Jorgensen, Steph Ran, and Wesley Shih from Dr. Hibino’s lab work on NASA’s Vascular Tissue Challenge.
University of Chicago students Riley Hurr, Caitlin Jorgensen, Steph Ran, and Wesley Shih from Dr. Hibino’s lab work on NASA’s Vascular Tissue Challenge.
Katherine Nurminsky

Hearts may beat a little better during deep space missions through the help of a University of Chicago lab.

A team of about 10 students led by Dr. Narutoshi Hibino is taking on NASA’s Vascular Tissue Challenge to create heart tissue that will help find solutions to the weakening of the heart muscle during space travel.

In space, blood almost floats with the lack of gravity. Since the heart doesn’t have to pump as hard as on Earth, the heart atrophies in space and struggles even after astronauts finish their missions, according to Hibino.

To understand the heart’s pumping under anti-gravity conditions, rising junior undergraduate Sarah Koljaka’s task was mimicking blood flow to the heart tissue or “perfusion system.”

“We were able to be really involved in the nitty-gritty work of the project, which is really an exceptional opportunity at this level,” said Koljaka, who joined the project in October.

Katherine Nurminsky holds patches for the perfusion system.
Katherine Nurminsky holds five tissue patches after they were placed into the perfusion system.
Sarah Koljaka

First and second prizes have been awarded to teams that created liver tissue.

Hibino is a cardiac specialist, so the lab chose the heart, even if it is a tougher organ to create than others. The lab is vying for a third-place prize of $100,000.

Besides helping astronauts, the team’s findings could help people with heart conditions on Earth, including organ transplants and stem cell regeneration of the heart.

“We are aiming at a future based on this technology,” Hibino said. “We want to build heart tissue that can be used for some future quick application to save lives.”

Though the tissue creation and research were mostly led by graduate students, the 30-day trial periods were handled by undergraduates.

Katherine Nurminsky, a rising senior and team leader, worked on cell cultivating and found the perfusion system to be the most challenging part of the trials. Their lab had to constantly adjust for leakage and issues like the machine shutting down after running too long.

“We did have problems with pressure and flow, which affects the nutrients and the oxygen delivery to the tissue,” said Nurminsky. “So eventually, we had a team of about four people just checking in on the machine at least five times a day just to make sure everything was fine.”

Hibino is proud of his students’ work, especially their ability to juggle classes alongside the NASA challenge.

“They’re very dedicated and smart,” Hibino said. “I’m trying to give them the opportunity to be a part of scientific research as much as possible. It’s different from the experience in a class or just taking an exam.”

He anticipates the challenge’s tissue samples to be taken into space for testing sometime in the future. However, for the lab, the challenge’s payoff will be felt here on Earth.

“If we do actually figure this out, anyone who has a heart attack can now have their own stem cells grown and form cardiac tissue to replace that scar. They can completely recover their heart,” Nurminsky said. “There were easier options, but I think that this one has a really big impact when we succeed.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct information attributed to students Sarah Koljaka and Katherine Nurminsky.