Space travel at the Leiden Bio Science Park? Airbus business development manager Matthijs van der Kooij talks about microgravity and its importance for biomedical research.
Everything that has to do with space transportation is inherently infused with a strange kind of excitement; a veritable luster of futuristic adventure and superhuman endeavor. So when one sets out to visit Airbus Defence and Space Netherlands, and marvel at the machine they’ve designed specifically to simulate the microgravity (“weightlessness”) encountered by astronauts in an orbit around the earth, expectations are pretty high. So high, in fact, that the first encounter with this Random Positioning Machine 2.0 is somewhat underwhelming: the RPM, it turns out, is a machine that can hold things upside-down.
Of course, there’s much more to it, as Airbus business development manager Matthijs van der Kooij is quick to point out. The way the RPM holds things not only upside-down, but in all directions, is incredibly sophisticated: following a random pattern, the platform at the centre of the machine is continuously rotated along three axes. After some time, the direction of the gravitational pull on the object of study placed on the platform levels out, and it effectively experiences zero gravity.
Short of experiments on the International Space Station itself, there has not been such an accessible method yet to research the effects of microgravity on, say, cell-division cycles, plant growth and even stem cells. Van der Kooij explains, there are some very enticing reasons to study said effects. “The extraordinary behavior of cell tissue and microorganisms in microgravity offers new perspectives for biomedical science.”
Weird things happen under weird circumstances, and microgravity is fundamentally weird.
Van der Kooij: “Unlike - for instance - temperature, the Earth’s gravity has always been a constant factor in the evolution of organisms, to which they’ve all accommodated. When you alter that gravity, you affect various fundamental mechanisms in cells.” For example, microgravity influences gene expression; it alters cell shape and cellular communication; it makes some microorganisms virulent, makes some bacteria prosper while making others wither.
Human bodies react quite strongly to a prolonged stay in space, and while some effects are rather straightforward (like the decrease of bone density), others prove more enigmatic (for instance, the apparent weakening of the immune system). Researching the effects of microgravity on living matter is not only important for the healthcare of astronauts, it is also key in any ambition for long-term space travel, or even human colonies (including vegetable patches) on the moon or Mars.
“Short of experiments on the International Space Station itself, there has not been such an accessible method yet to research the effects of microgravity.”
New perspectives for biomedical science
But the microgravity research that the RPM enables is relevant for many others than astrobiologists, Van der Kooij believes. Cancer researchers, for example, may be interested to learn that cancer models grown in microgravity better resemble tumors found in human bodies. Furthermore, growing cells in the RPM enables a new approach to tissue engineering in a scaffold-free manner. And, as was discovered recently, stem cells placed in the RPM can be influenced more effectively in their differentiation and proliferation. In other words: the RPM may very well be fruitful for other fields of study, and Van der Kooij is excited to bridge the gap between aerospace and biomedical research.
Interview by Robbert van Strien
Photo by Airbus Defence and Space Netherlands B.V.