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Ri.MED research travels into space

13 June 2016

A bioreactor for generating engineered cartilage and bone tissue was presented on June 13, 2016 at the White House Organ Summit in Washington, D.C.. This innovative in vitro model was developed at the University of Pittsburgh by Italian researcher Riccardo Gottardi, Ri.MED supported scientist, and will be used for purposes of medical-scientific research onboard the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory.

The project, presented for the first time in the U.S. in March, was awarded a grant by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), an organization tasked by NASA with managing and promoting scientific research onboard the International Space Station. The ISS has two main objectives: the first, as described by NASA, is to develop and test technologies for space exploration that will make missions beyond the Earth’s orbit bearable, and at the same time build experience for long-duration spaceflights (e.g., a hypothetical journey to Mars, which would take six months). The second goal, with an immediate tangible effect on the Earth and the health of its inhabitants, is to provide researchers with a laboratory in a microgravity setting. Because degenerative processes undergo a strong acceleration under zero-gravity conditions, studies to validate the effectiveness of drugs and therapies that would require several years if performed on the Earth would only take about ten days of observation in space. Thanks to the model developed by Dr. Gottardi, long-term effects of bisphosphonates on cartilage and bone tissues could be tested in just one month.

Riccardo Gottardi developed the bioreactor at the Center for Cellular & Molecular Engineering (CCME) of the University of Pittsburgh directed by Dr. Rocky S. Tuan, where the Italian scientist works thanks to a Ri.MED Foundation fellowship. The bioreactor will allow to understand how joint tissues interact and therefore develop new therapies to stop or reverse the progression of diseases like osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. One of the main obstacles to understanding these pathological mechanisms and discovering new drugs to restore cartilage, is that cartilage interacts with other joint tissues, particularly bone tissues, and cannot be studied separately. The bioreactor recreates a physiological environment in which vascularized tissue models are used to observe not only the effects on cartilage and bone tissues, but also on the mutual interaction between damaged cartilage and bone tissues, and vice versa.

Our program,” says Dr. Gottardi, “was appreciated by CASIS because osteoporosis is one of the main problems associated with life in space: even perfectly healthy individuals, such as astronauts, experience a rapid and significant bone loss in a zero-gravity setting, with a serious risk of fractures and circulation problems during long interplanetary spaceflights. The bioreactor is small in size and can be easily sent into space. It also has positive effects in terms of clinical applications: osteoarthritis and osteoporosis affect hundreds of millions of people. Pain caused by osteoarthritis tends to become chronic and invalidating, with a devastating effect on the patients’ lives. Validating the long-term effects of drugs and therapies in only a couple of months will be an amazing step forward in research, and will help many patients reducing costs related with the disease.”

I am of course very excited about this journey to space”, said Dr. Gottardi, “but most of all I’m happy to have started the process towards rapidly translating research into clinical practice. I would like to contribute to improving the available treatments for patients who, like my parents, suffer from the invalidating effects of bone diseases.”

Alessandro Padova, director general of the Ri.MED Foundation, is enthusiastic: “Results like these demonstrate the importance of the research conducted by Ri.MED, a non-profit public-private organization established by the Presidency of the Italian Council of Ministers. Thanks to our partners – first of all the University of Pittsburgh, UPMC, and the Italian National Research Council (CNR) – and our strategic international collaborations and talented researchers, today we are able to generate intellectual property, patents, and real breakthroughs in clinical translational research. My sincere congratulations to Riccardo, who is working on outstanding regenerative medicine projects that will reach their full potential in the soon-to-be-built Ri.MED research center in Sicily.”

CASIS will finance the preparation of the bioreactor for its space mission adjusting it to be able to operate in zero-gravity conditions. CASIS will also soon start seeking additional sources of funding to support the costs of the mission. Once the bioreactor reaches the space station, the native and engineered tissue samples will be treated with bisphosphonates in order to confirm the role of this class of drugs in terms of protection during long-term microgravity exposure, assess the effects on cartilage and bone tissues, and establish the efficacy of ad hoc therapies: one giant leap forward for personalized medicine and development of tissue engineering technology.

Riccardo Gottardi graduated in Physics at the University of Pisa in 2003, curriculum of Applied Physics (Medical Physics), with a thesis on the characterization of bacteriorhodopsin. From 2004 to 2007 he worked for his PhD between the Department of Biophysical and Electronic Engineering, University of Genoa (supervisor: Prof. Roberto Raiteri) and the Biozentrum in Basel, Switzerland (supervisors: Prof. Ueli Aebi and dr. Martin Stolz) as part of a collaborative project. His doctoral thesis was centered on the validation of the atomic force microscope as a tool for the micro- and nanomechanics characterization of articular cartilage for diagnostic purposes. After his PhD he continued to work at the University of Genoa developing new methods for studying the structural and micro-and nanomechanical properties of cells and tissues.
Since 2011 is Ri.MED supported scientist at the University of Pittsburgh in the Center for Cellular and Molecular Engineering at the McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine (Supervisor: dr. Rocky S. Tuan) and in the Little Laboratories at the School of Engineering (supervisor: dr. Steven R. Little). Riccardo will be principal investigator at the CBRB about to be build.

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