New research will explore the effects of extreme environments on tissue engineered models

A new research consortium led by BHP founder-member the University of Birmingham – working with Cranfield University – will investigate how extreme environments affect human biology.

Research in this area is challenging because of the difficulties of simulating conditions – such as weak or ‘micro’ gravity and additionally, mechanical stress – in a laboratory setting and applying these effects to humans.

To address this, the group will focus on tissue ‘avatars’, which are lab-developed micro-organs and artificial tissue models.

Projects in the Consortium for Organotypic Research on Ageing and Microgravity will range from studying tissue loss in a simulated microgravity environment through to the shock response of tissues, such as in tissue degeneration, disuse or damage during ageing or injury. The consortium has been designed as a collaborative platform for knowledge and skill transfer and draws together skills and expertise from across the UK to study the effects of extreme environments on human biology.

Consortium lead Dr Alexandra Iordachescu, of the University of Birmingham’s School of Chemical Engineering, said: “Simulating the tissue responses to extreme physiological conditions is essential for understanding pathology in numerous clinical contexts, as well as the changes that take place within the aviation and space environments. Such a capability is currently missing in the UK and wider community and is of particular importance because it can help with testing novel therapeutics and interventions, as well as replacing the animal models that would normally be used.”

Use of avatars and models has increased steadily over the past decade to investigate tissue damage and disease, and are created using human cells produced inside polymeric matrices. When grown in controlled environmental conditions, these constructs develop relevant anatomical structures and cell types.

The size of the cultured constructs, ranging from micron to centimetre scales means they can be introduced into analogue microenvironments that can simulate microgravity and – at the opposite end of the spectrum – increased mechanical stress. This increased mechanical pressure simulates trauma, accident or blast exposure in the tissue cells.

The range of expertise within the consortium includes advanced biofabrication and tissue engineering, as well as the use of equipment for impact testing and launching materials at high velocities.

This work will ultimately inform research on protective measures and interventions in the defence and space fields, such as suit design and protective equipment for defence personnel.

Professor Gareth Appleby-Thomas, who leads the Cranfield side of the consortium and the Centre for Defence Engineering at Cranfield University, said: “Understanding of extreme environments is core to the defence sphere. Insight into tissue behaviour under extremes is therefore of paramount importance, particularly in terms of enhancing protection for individuals against both threats and environments they may encounter. To this end, this consortium – opening the doors to connect differing communities in this domain – is extremely timely and should be well received in the defence community.”

The consortium was launched on Friday 20 May 2022 at the Institute of Physics, London.