Flow Cytometry in Space

"We choose to go to the moon…because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
~John F. Kennedy
Countless labs are looking into a variety of diseases and animal models down here on Earth, and flow cytometry is one of the most useful tools at an immunologist’s disposal. But, did you know that there are flow cytometry experiments being performed in outer space?
Astronauts spend countless hours preparing their bodies for the rigors of outer space and for good reason. Long-term exposure to micro-gravity and space itself causes:
  • Immunological and hematological dysregulation
  • Bone demineralization
  • Muscle loss
  • Cardiovascular adaptation (fluids are redistributed in the body as it tends to stay near the top of the body)
  • Sensory motor alterations (headaches, nausea)

Some of these symptoms go away over time, but some (like bone demineralization) can be permanent. Given all of these physiological and immunological changes, it makes sense that scientists are trying to understand how space affects the body and different health conditions.
So, this is an interesting area of research...but there are many complications when it comes to trying to use a flow cytometer in space.

Zoolander®, Paramount Pictures.
  • First and foremost, most flow cytometers are rather large and heavy. The size of the cytometer has to be reduced for storage and economical reasons.
  • It also needs to be resistant to the shocks and jolts associated with the rocket’s launch into space. You can’t have bolts and screws coming loose during the launch.
  • Cytometers typically have a lot of waste from the fluidics and operation of the machine. Any fluids (including biohazardous biological samples) used in this machine must be contained properly. The last thing you need is for the machine’s fluids to short-circuit the other equipment on the station.

Pokémon®, 4Kids Entertainment.
  • Most cytometers use a lot of electricity. But, in space, the electrical supply for the machine shouldn’t drain the ship.

Apollo 13®, Universal Pictures.
  • And finally, ease of use. Most astronauts, unfortunately, are not avid flow users and are inexperienced with this technique. The machine needs to be simple enough for astronauts to use and gather data with.

The Microflow Cytometer is the first cytometer to reach outer space.
To accommodate all these issues, the Microflow cytometer was created. They tested it to ensure it gave similar results on the ground, in simulated space (through parabolic flight), and in actual space at the International Space Station. These first experiments were conducted on basic phenotypic markers like CD45, CD4, and Th1 and Th2 cytokines.

This machine is roughly the size of a shoe box, runs on batteries, and has triple layers of protection for fluid containment. In the future, they’re hoping to add more lasers and channels (it currently only uses a blue laser).
You can listen in on the full seminar discussing these experiments here. You can see actual astronauts on the space station discussing the Microflow and its uses here. These experiments are an intriguing first step for astronauts possibly diagnosing and treating themselves during long-term missions. It also would allow them to have immediate answers, rather than having to send the samples back to Earth for testing.

So would you be willing to be sent up into space to run a flow core facility? Let us know what you think about this blog by contacting us here.

Just when I thought I got the hang of science...
Contributed by Ken Lau, PhD.
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