Success Stories

Canadians Propelling Space Life Science & Medicine: Astronaut Chris Hadfield to Test Revolutionary Canadian Cytometer Technology on International Space Station

Canadian Space Agency (CSA) helps INO's innovative technology take flight

The flow cytometer has been a standard tool in medical and research labs for decades. Its ever-expanding applications range from detecting and diagnosing blood and immune disorders in humans, to identifying and testing bacterial cells in food or water. A flow cytometer counts and examines microscopic particles such as cells, cell components and biological molecules by marking them with fluorescent tags, suspending them in a stream of fluid, and measuring their size and characteristics with optical sensors.

Traditionally, flow cytometers have been limited for use in clinical labs and research settings. However, National Optics Institute (INO), a research and development organization based in Quebec City, has developed a functioning miniaturized prototype enabled by micro-fiber optics technology. The technological maturity of the core innovation was further boosted through a $300,000 Space Technology Development Program (STDP) contract and a $2.5 million contract under the International Space Station (ISS) program from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The CSA contracts, combined with INO's R&D efforts, led to the development of a portable fiber-based Microflow Cytometer prototype capable of being operated in space.

INO had to overcome several challenges to adapt the traditional flow cytometer for use in space. The key achievements under the CSA contracts included the successful elimination of optical sensitivity related to vibrations experienced during launch into space, and the use of novel micro-optical fibers to simplify the instrument design (including the particle detector and fluidic system), thereby reducing the size of the cytometer by 75%.

INO cytometer's first stop is space

The portable cytometer's first demonstration in space will be aboard the ISS. And fittingly, the first astronaut to test INO's technological breakthrough will be a fellow Canadian, astronaut Chris Hadfield.

INO's innovation will help flight surgeons to ensure that future Canadian and other astronauts remain healthy for these extended missions. If all goes well, this test drive is expected to lead to the installation of a permanent flow cytometer aboard the ISS, to monitor the health of astronauts and assist in life science studies in space.

Benefits and developments back on Earth

The Canadian Microflow Cytometer has opened the door for 21st century applications on Earth as well. For example, such portable technology can make it possible to support health care delivery to isolated rural communities in remote regions of Northern Canada. Additionally, in developing countries point-of-care implementation for testing and monitoring communicable diseases can now be more accessible.

In 2011, INO licensed its intellectual property on its cytometry platform for medical and terrestrial point-of-care applications to a newly formed Canadian spin-off company called Handyem. The Microflow Cytometry technology is now being applied to the development of clinically relevant point-of-care solutions and pharmacological monitoring.

Expanding expertise—and employment opportunities

The CSA contracts to develop this innovative technology brought together 25 highly qualified biophotonics specialists and technologists. To adapt this technology for use in space, they had to overcome significant challenges. In addition, the new and unique expertise gained in space-related optofluidic and optomechanical engineering and miniaturization innovation has created several additional employment opportunities in Canada. Clearly, while the technology itself has reduced in size, the list of benefits is expanding steadily.