If all goes to plan, 20 or so mini-hearts, crafted by a 3D printer in an El Paso lab, will be orbiting the earth in less than two years – snug in the International Space Station, unbound from gravity 240 miles above the Earth.
This is not a Valentine’s Day column and not an awkward attempt at a sappy love metaphor. It’s about science, the El Paso economy and literal heart-tissue structures crafted from human stem cells.
The heart-research proposal drafted by scientists at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso and the University of Texas at El Paso is one of only five tissue engineering projects that were selected by the National Science Foundation to receive the funding.
The aim is to discover better ways of preventing or treating the damage that life in microgravity can cause to the hearts of astronauts like Christina Koch, who returned to Earth less than two weeks ago after a record-breaking 328 days in space.
And those answers could help scientists understand what happens to hearts on Earth that are impacted by diseases like diabetes, which affects a disproportionate number of people in El Paso.
“I hope it will have an impact up there but also down here,” said Texas Tech scientist Munmun Chattopadhyay.
A team led by UTEP biomedical engineer Binata Joddar is developing the miniature 3D structures – 1 millimeter thick – that will support the various cells nurtured by a team led by Chattopadhyay at Texas Tech. Like people need food and water, cells also need nutrients. And creating just the right recipe to keep the different cells happy is tricky, Chattopadhyay said.
The “cardiac organoids” will be packed into a high-tech package designed to keep the cells alive, and sent into space for a month. When they return, the researchers will compare them to the ones that stayed on Earth – the control.
“It’s not just the research we are doing; we are involving the community,” Chattopadhyay said.
They will host workshops for area middle school and high school students, talking to them about the tissue engineering projects on the space station – and, hopefully, sparking in them an interest in science. Medical students will have the opportunity to learn about the benefits and challenges of transitioning research from Earth-based labs into space.
Chattopadhyay says she joined Texas Tech El Paso in 2014, moving to the Sun City from frigid Minnesota, where she had lived for 10 years, studying nerve degeneration and related problems. While looking for a tenure-track position, she interviewed at Texas Tech, as well as many other places around the country.
“Believe it or not, I loved this one,” said Chattopadhyay, who grew up in Kolkata, India. “I felt like it’s home. I seriously believe that this is home.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Probably because I am from India, and I really love the culture of El Paso. It really matches with our culture. You know, family oriented. We really care for each other, and here at Texas Tech, I always felt connected.”
Ten years ago, Texas Tech El Paso became a standalone university, a longtime goal of community leaders and part of an effort to both ease El Paso’s chronic doctor shortage and help stem the city’s brain drain by creating high-skill, high-paying jobs in the borderland.
By all intents and purposes, Texas Tech appears to be fulfilling its promise so far, and the heart research is just one small piece of it – albeit a particularly fascinating one.