As of today Israel has launched four space life-science experiments aboard NASA space shuttles, the last three of them were conducted by IAMI researchers. All four projects were under the patronage of the Israel Space Agency and brought together Israel’s leading professionals in the fields of medicine and biology. New research projects are constantly being developed and prepared for future launches.

The Hornet Experiment
1992 Space Shuttle Endeavor (STS-47) - Tel-Aviv University.

The Hornet Experiment was based on the Oriental hornet, which has a unique ability to build its comb in the direction of gravity (terrestrial studies have shown that it is the only factor that determines the direction a comb is built). The experiment investigated the effects of microgravity on the hornets, their physical and physiological development and their nest-building instincts. The ultimate goal of the project was to discover how to prevent astronauts from suffering headaches, nausea, vomiting and weakness during missions. These symptoms are thought to be caused by disorientation due to lack of gravity perception and are obstacles to sending people to space stations or on extended trips to other planets.

The experiment was launched on STS-47, but after the launch a malfunction in the water system caused an abnormal increase in humidity, culminating in the death of 202 hornets (out of 230) and the death of 103 pupae (out of 120). The hornets that survived lost their sense of direction, and unlike the hornets in the control unit they did not climb on the walls or stay in clusters but rather they stayed motionless and apart from each other. They started to climb on the walls and build nests only 3-4 days after their return to Earth. The longevity of those hornets was shorter and they lived for an average of 23 days instead of 43 days like the control hornets. In addition, the pupae that flew in space did not complete their metamorphosis.

Early development of mice embryos in microgravity
1996 Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-80) - IAMI and The Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center, Jerusalem.

In the 1970's Hebrew University scientists found that gravity is a major factor in the development of mammalian embryos. What would happen to their growth in the absence of gravity? It was against this background that the mouse embryo project was developed.

The experiment was designed to determine if mice embryo cells could develop normally in microgravity conditions in space. Final results were expected to give a better understanding of basic principles of early embryo development and provide insight into the possibilities of human reproduction in space.

The experimental payload contained 2-cell and 8-cell mice embryos that continued to grow in culture media throughout the space flight. After Columbia landed, the experimental embryos were compared with similar ones grown at the same time on Earth.

The embryos that were exposed to microgravity stopped growing and did not reach the stage at which they'd have implanted in the uterus in normal development. In contrast, the Earth-based control embryos had grown normally. The stage at which the mouse embryos stopped growing was when the central axis or neural tube that runs down the middle of the mammal develops. Research had suggested that the growth of this axis is controlled by gravity, and it may be key to understanding early neural defects in mammals.

Growth of osteoblast cells in a microgravity environment
1996 Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-80) - IAMI and The Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center, Jerusalem..

The astronauts have an extremely busy schedule while on a space mission, yet an important part of their daily routine in space includes lengthy and time consuming sport exercises aimed at maintaining their bone and muscle mass. During long-duration space missions astronauts may lose as much as 10% of their bone and muscle. The reasons for this are numerous and include a dysfunction of the bone cells (called osteoblasts) with less building of new bone, increased breakdown of bone, and the lack of the forces of gravity which on Earth help us maintain our muscle tone and bone strength. The changes in the astronauts’ bones resemble osteoporosis, but they occur more rapidly and while an individual on Earth loses 1-2% of bone per year, it is estimated that the astronauts lose 1% to 2% of their bone mass each month they are in space. Furthermore the osteoporosis of space is not totally reversible. Therefore it is of great importance to study and understand osteoblast function in microgravity (the state of near weightlessness experienced by Shuttle crews) and devise ways to counteract it. The clinical applications of these counter-measures may then be used to treat Earth-based osteoporosis, thus improving the quality of life for many millions of people every year and saving 7 billion dollars in the USA alone that are spent yearly on treatment and medical follow-up of osteoporosis induced fractures.

During STS-80 osteoblast cultures were grown in microgravity, using specialized hardware that was developed and sponsored by ITA USA Inc. The space-grown osteoblastic cells were than compared to osteoblastic cells grown on Earth. The research demonstrated that osteoblasts exposed to microgravity experience many changes when compared with cells grown on Earth. Cells exposed to microgravity demonstrated a lower proliferation rate, a lower metabolism and an altered cell structure.

New Mediciation for of calcium loss develop in space
1998 Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-95) - IAMI and The Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center, Jerusalem.

This research was a continuation and extension of the one conducted on osteoblast cultures on STS-80. This space flight mission was joined by 77-year-old astronaut John Glenn; the first American astronaut to orbit Earth whom later became senator of Ohio. The tests included examining the thinning effect of space on mouse bones, a comparison of the process of calcium loss in the mouse bone with what happens in Glenn's body and the effectiveness of a calcium-vitamin D supplement against osteoporosis.