Center for Space Medicine

Researching the Effects of Space Radiation with Organs on Chips


Radiation is a type of energy that is emitted in the form of rays, electromagnetic waves and/or particles. In low doses, radiation can be used for in medical imaging such as an x-ray, without significant negative side effects. However, in large doses it can cause serious tissue damage to the human body.

Space radiation is different from radiation experienced here on Earth. It’s made up of particles trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field, particles shot into space during solar flares and galactic cosmic rays, which are high-energy protons and heavy ions from outside our social system. Astronauts are exposed to a significant amount of radiation during space missions – equivalent to 150 to 6,000 chest x-rays. Considering a deep space journey to Mars will take approximately three-years, it’s essential to not only fully understand the effects of radiation on the human body, but also how best to mitigate the negative effects to ensure astronauts return to Earth safe and healthy.

Development of Organs On Chips Technology

Organs-on-a-chip are miniature tissues and organs grown in-vitro that allow researchers to model human physiology and disease. While OOCs are only the size of a quarter, they deliver revolutionary results. 

Thanks to TRISH’s support, Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic and her team at Columbia University are using this technology to examine whether laboratory OOCs mimic changes exhibited in the tissues and organs of some astronauts. Modeling diseases or effects of certain factors, like radiation, will allow NASA to better understand human physiology in space. Additionally, using these stems allows the research team to freely experiment with a number of conditions and use patient’s specific tissues. This information will accelerate the development of either new medicines or new countermeasures to radiation and treatments.

“I strongly believe that space and medicine are the real frontiers of our thinking,” said Vunjak-Novakovic. “I’ve devoted my whole life and career to doing engineering for human health. It’s my passion and I’m very excited to be involved in the Mars mission by enabling those who do make the journey to do so in a healthier and better way.”