Stem Cells in Space

On a day to day basis, it’s quite typical for us to see news about stem cell research done in laboratories on terra firma. But recently, we’ve seen an uptick in news about stem cells in space!

This Sunday, The SpaceX Falcon9 rocket launched from the famous 39a pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Among the payload were donated adult Mesenchymal stem cells from Dr. Abba Zubair‘s laboratory at Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus.


Growing Mesenchymal stem cells in space

Dr. Zubair and others hope to see stem cells used to treat tissue damage caused by stroke. But, a quantity issue currently exists–it could take hundreds of millions of cells to treat a human, which could take a significant amount of time to grow. And right now, the lines for organ transplants are far longer than the number of available organs. It has already been shown using simulators on Earth that in a microgravity environment, stem cells expand significantly faster. With his laboratory’s stem cells now in space, Zubair and other scientists will be examining the possibility of someday growing tissue in an in-orbit laboratory setting, for future use in on-the-ground therapies. Additionally, he says:

We’ll be looking to see if there are genes activated in microgravity and analyzing the stages of the cell cycle. We may discover proteins or compounds that are produced that we can synthesize on Earth to encourage stem cell growth without having to go to microgravity.”

World Stem Cell Summit

In early December, The Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine hosted the 2016 World Stem Cell Summit. Each year the World Stem Cell Summit (WSCS) is host to research scientists, academics, advocates, entrepreneurs, and clinicians who gather in the spirit of collaboration, education, and medical advancement. Among other important topics were discussions on recent stem cell research in microgravity environments.

In July 2016, The SpaceX CRS-9 mission brought cardiomyocytes (cardiac cell tissue) for a one month stay on the International Space Station (ISS). A second set of cells from the same people stayed on Earth, as control samples. Now that the cells have returned to Earth, Arun Sharma and his research team at Stanford University have begun analyzing the data to learn more about how environments with low gravity affects heart tissue.

Microgravity’s effect on differentiation, with respects to cell age

Mary Kearns-Jonker of Loma Linda University in California has also been experimenting with stem cells in microgravity environments, and has found that cardiac progenitor cells (tissue-specific stem cells that can develop into heart muscle) react differently. Cardiac progenitor cells from neonates, but not adults, actually show the ability to dedifferentiate—to revert back to a more unspecific, primal state. She explains:

They back up a little bit to go forward more efficiently.”

Next month, cells from the laboratory will start a month-long stay on the ISS, to see if the same age-dependent differences she and her team noticed on Earth are also noticeable in space.

Looking forward

SpaceX Falcon9Stem cells will play an important part of future medical therapy, and it is exciting to see such amazing research, both on the ground, and now in space. From learning about how a microgravity environments affect stem cells, to exploring the possibility of clinical-grade cells being grown in orbiting labs, it seems moving forward, we’ll be hearing a lot more about stem cells in space.