Australian “lab on a chip” cubesat carries life sciences into orbit

Seven minutes. It seems an inconsequential period. But it’s a lifetime for bacteria. And that’s enough to prove an Australian space startup’s “laboratory on a chip” can do its job.

Adelaide-based ResearchSat hopes to send its first CubeSat into space from Sweden on November 22.

It’s just a 10cm cube which weighs a little less than 1kg and is designed to carry two self-contained experiments 250 km above the Earth’s surface.

And it’s all about proving a concept.

Microgravity has enormous potential for biomedical research.

But it doesn’t have to be all about multimillion-dollar hand-crafted orbital laboratories.

Instead, ResearchSat is out to prove small, standardised research modules can be carried by CubeSats or packed neatly into corners of the International Space Station.

“This first trip into space won’t be enough to produce significant data,” says founder and CEO Raviteja Duggenini. “But it is long enough to demonstrate the capability of the lab modules to grow, interact with and monitor cultures of bacteria and fungi.”

This launch will carry two experiments within a ResearchSat flight-control unit called an ADI-Lab.

Pic 2 1
A ResearchSat CubeSat under assembly.
Two “plug-and-play” laboratory modules can be seen in the bottom-right corner.

One carries cell cultures of yeast and Bacillus subtilis. This RMIT university project will monitor and record how they behave in microgravity, and test the potential for such space-based biotechnological research in the future.

The second will test the performance of a microfluidic chip. This ResearchSat and Adelaide-based pharmaceutical company Numedico Sciences project will use the microgravity environment to inject and capture a droplet within another droplet. This process, called emulsification, is aimed at improving the delivery of drugs.

But mostly, the main experiment is the CubeSat itself. It’s about proving the miniaturised componentry it carries has the potential to conduct meaningful science in a reliable manner.

Space for change

Things rarely work as expected in space, that’s because the rules have changed.

Crucial considerations such as the surface tensions, shear forces of different liquids and the size, shape and thickness of cell walls are no longer the same. Additional to microgravity (weightlessness) there are the effects of radiation and fluctuating temperatures but those changes can assist biomedical research, says Duggenini.

For example, microgravity affects the way fluids behave. Globules of water wobble about, held together by surface tension.

The resulting fluid dynamics have exciting applications for drug delivery.

What is this thing called Cubesat?

In particular, it enables a droplet of a drug to be encapsulated by a protective carrying agent. This will only release the drug when it comes in contact with a targeted tissue type. Microgravity, Duggenini adds, also has a wide range of effects on disease-causing organisms.

Microorganisms inflate. Cell walls expand and bio-molecules are forced to reorganise their internal structures to adapt.

“It can give them new properties. For example, dormant genes suppressed on Earth can activate once in space,” Duggenini says.

For fungus, it tends to grow as a 3D cell culture without any supporting architecture – not its typical surface-covering film. And that gives it a greater surface area to interact with test environments.

Yeasts grow faster. And bacteria mutate more rapidly.

“So the rapid ageing effect produces an opportunity to design disease models and test them at a more rapid pace in space,” he says.

“It helps develop drugs faster than compared to on Earth. And this accelerated research can help pharmaceutical companies get to market faster than their competitors.”

Shape of things to come

Each satellite’s core is an integrated structural frame and data transfer system, all attached to a flight computer. Different laboratory modules can then be slotted into place.

The micro-labs are “plug-and-play” within their standardised frames, enabling each mission to be customised.

“The main challenge is packaging all these different sensors and electronics into a small volume and then ensuring they are sustained against rocket launch and radiation conditions without compromising their functionality,” says Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer, Jibin Dhanaraj.

Getting the testbed nanosatellite into a functional format took the better part of a year, he adds. “Now we’re working on a whole family of designs based on this architecture.”

At the heart of the project are the laboratory modules. These must cope with the rigours of launch, cultivate test cultures, mix and administer experimental drugs – and observe and record every aspect of this interaction.

“We use a series of micro-pumps integrated with microfluidic chips to create customised lab platforms,” explains Dhanaraj. “They look like circuit boards. But instead of solder lines, we have capillaries that can mix specific chemicals to produce the desired effect”.

Each micro-lab contains a miniaturised microscope among the sensors, monitoring results.

“But it can focus on objects of about 10 microns in size,” says Dhanaraj. “And that’s a first for this kind of mission.”

The test subjects – bacteria and fungi – cope well with the stresses of a rocket launch. This should come as no surprise, says Duggenini, as they’re regularly subjected to centrifugal forces and extreme conditions within traditional earth-bound research facilities.

Not so the glass slides needed for the microscope to observe them.

“Finding out how we can preserve the integrity of such a thin slice of glass was an important challenge for us,” he explains.

ResearchSat aims to put larger, more ambitious projects into space in the second half of 2023. The goal is to subject bacteria and fungi to up to three weeks of microgravity. This represents hundreds of generations worth of evolutionary change.

“We are planning three missions next year on top of the sub-orbital missions through which we can test our IP and new experiments,” Duggenini adds. “That will allow us to get more high-quality data and gives us more credibility to pitch to pharmaceutical clients.”

The Lot Fourteen-based startup now has 13 employees and is seeking potential venture capital of $5 million as seed funding to fund future missions.

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