MicroAge: University of Liverpool launch human muscle cells into space to explore secrets of ageing

Could space travel be the secret to anti-ageing? Credit: PA

Human muscle cells grown in a lab have been launched into space in an experiment, conducted by the University of Liverpool that could help people live longer, healthier lives.

The £1.2 million study, called MicroAge, will operate on the International Space Station and was launched on a SpaceX rocket from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on Tuesday.

The muscle cells are as small as a grain of rice, and each has been packed into 24 3D-printed holders, about the size of a small pencil sharpener, for the journey.

Our muscles lose mass and strength as we age which can lead to other problems, including the risk of falling and a greater recovery time from injury.

The team behind the study hope monitoring the growth of muscles cells in microgravity will help solve the puzzle of why we get weaker with age and look at ways to prevent it.

Science Minister George Freeman said: “As we get older, our bones and muscles get weaker, but scientists don’t fully understand how this happens.

“The research of our scientist astronauts like Tim Peake on muscle loss in the microgravity of space is helping identify potential cures for musculoskeletal disease, which causes agony to millions and costs the NHS billions.

“By harnessing the unique environment of the International Space Station our pioneering scientists could help us all live healthier, stronger lives.”

Human muscle cells have been launched into space. Credit: UK Space Agency

Once in space, the muscle cells will be electrically stimulated to induce contractions in the tissue, and the scientists will look closely to see what happens.

Professor Malcolm Jackson from the University of Liverpool, said: “Ageing is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century and we will learn a great deal about how muscle responds to microgravity and ageing from the data we obtain from this study."

At the end of the experiment, the muscles will be frozen and returned to Earth, in January 2022, where the scientists will undertake further analysis. 

As part of the mission, the 24 muscle cell containers will carry mission patches designed by children, following a competition run by the University of Liverpool.

Scientists will analysis the findings when the cells return to earth in January 2022. Credit: UK Space Agency