Nov. 18, 2022

Organoid manufacturing platform developed by UCalgary professor used by NASA

Mark Ungrin’s AggreWell platform has been used by the space agency to produce heart organoids for its latest science mission
Cardiac organoids, produced by the AggreWell, are cryopreserved, then flown to the International Space Station for research.
Cardiac organoids, produced by NASA using the AggreWell platform, will be cryopreserved, then flown to the International Space Station for research. NASA

Technology developed by a University of Calgary professor is being used by NASA in its latest science mission on the International Space Station.

Dr. Mark Ungrin, PhD, an associate professor in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, created the AggreWell platform, which is being used by NASA to produce heart organoids, or tissue cultures. 

“Seeing it used in the space program is really cool. The science is interesting, but it’s also something I put in an email and sent to my parents. My kids think it’s pretty neat, too,” says Ungrin.

Ungrin describes the AggreWell as if someone were to pick up the Great Pyramid in Egypt, turn it upside down and stamp thousands of impressions of it into the ground in a grid pattern. Then, it starts raining bowling balls – which fall into pyramid-shaped holes and roll down to the point where they are brought together.

Mark Ungrin, PhD, an associate professor in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine

Mark Ungrin, associate professor in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

Jager and Kokemor

Now imagine all of this, but on a microscopic scale: the bowling balls are cells, and as they come together at the bottoms of the holes, they will adhere to each other. They start off as loose aggregates, but as the cells become more tightly integrated, they pull together into spheroids. Depending on the cell type(s) involved, they can then self-organize into more complex structures known as organoids.

Microgravity comparison

As part of Project Eagle, NASA is using the AggreWell to produce cardiac organoids. These organoids are then cryopreserved and flown to the International Space Station – in 2020 they flew on the SpaceX Dragon system. Once in space, the organoids are thawed, and their structure and maturation in microgravity is compared with cultures grown on Earth. The ability to grow these 3D cultures of organoids holds the potential for clinical application, disease modeling, and drug discovery for cardiovascular diseases on Earth.

Not only was the AggreWell used to produce the heart organoids, but it made NASA’s cryopreservation of them easier. Ungrin says the platform’s particular strength is that it allows for the creation of tens or hundreds of thousands of organoids that are highly uniform in both size and shape. This means their behaviour is very consistent, and the conditions the cells inside them experience during freezing and thawing are well-controlled.

This uniformity is one of the many advantages that the AggreWell, which is now considered a global standard for organoid manufacturing, can provide. “A lot of the cutting-edge stuff being done in organoids is being done with the AggreWell,” says Ungrin.

Expanding range of applications

Beyond heart organoids being sent to space, the platform has been used to produce everything from structures that resemble early human embryos to further improve assisted reproductive technologies and prevent pregnancy loss and birth defects, to liver organoids for toxicology studies, to producing breast tumor spheroids to test cancer drugs.

Ungrin’s group at UCalgary and their collaborators in the Alberta Diabetes Institute have used the AggreWell to develop pseudoislets – pancreatic organoids which produce insulin – which their industry collaborator Aspect Biosystems of Vancouver is now aiming to bring to clinical trials to help people with Type 1 diabetes.

Ungrin attributes the success of the technology to the fact that it was designed to be easy to use, and to allow researchers to test their ideas without requiring an investment in expensive equipment.

“In my applications for research funding, I’ve been pointing out that technology I’ve developed previously has been used in research on every continent except Antarctica,” he says. “I thought that would be hard to top, but it turns out there’s more to add to the list after all.”

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