• Tissue ‘avatars’ developed in a lab will be used to study responses such as degeneration, damage from ageing or injury
  • Work will inform research into protective equipment for defence and space personnel
  • New consortium draws together expertise from across the UK

A new research consortium led by the University of Birmingham and Cranfield will investigate how extreme environments affect human biology.

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

Tissue ‘avatars’

The consortium will create and use tissue ‘avatars’ – micro-organs and artificial tissue models that can be developed in a laboratory.

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.

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

Enhancing protection against threats and extreme environments

Professor Gareth Appleby-Thomas, who leads the Cranfield side of the consortium and the Centre for Defence Engineering, 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.”

Consortium lead Dr Alexandra Lordachescu in 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.”

Artificial models made using human cells

Use of artificial models has increased steadily over the past decade to investigate tissue damage and disease. They are made 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.

The consortium has been designed as a collaborative platform for knowledge and skill transfer and draws together skills and expertise from across the UK.

About Cranfield University

Cranfield University is a specialist postgraduate university that is a global leader for education and transformational research in technology and management.