High-flying experiment: can stem cells grow better in space?
Scientists are investigating whether stem cells can grow faster in a zero-gravity environment by sending their own stem cells into space. Stem cell therapies may be used to treat various diseases in the future.
Researcher Dhruv Sareen’s own stem cells are now circulating on Earth. Mission? To test whether they grow better in zero gravity. Scientists at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles are trying to find new ways to make large doses of a type of stem cell that can produce almost any type of cell in the body — and could potentially be used to make drugs for many diseases.

The cells arrived at the International Space Station on a supply ship over the weekend. “I don’t think I can afford one of the costs now” of a private space trip, Sareen said. “At least the part of me in the cells can go up!” The experiment is the latest research project involving launching stem cells into space. Some, like her, aim to overcome the earthly difficulties of mass-producing cells. Others have studied how space travel affects the body’s cells. And others may help better understand diseases like cancer.
“It’s knowledge, science, and learning that pushes those boundaries,” said Clive Svendsen, executive director of the Cedars-Sinai Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Six previous projects from the US, China, and Italy used different types of stem cells – including his team’s study of the effects of microgravity on cardiac function at the cellular level, Dr. Joseph Wu of Stanford University, who oversees the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute. We helped coordinate a number of space-based stem cell research programs last year. The terrestrial applications of much of this research may be minimal. At this time, the only stem cell products approved by the Food and Drug Administration contain stem cells that make blood from cord blood for patients with blood diseases, such as some cases of lymphoma. There are no approved therapies that use the type of stem cells sent into space or otherwise, said Jeffrey Millman, a biomedical engineering expert at Washington University in St. Louis. However, clinical trials continue to involve stem cells targeting conditions such as macular degeneration, Parkinson’s disease, and heart attack damage. And Millman is involved in research that could lead to a new approach to treating type 1 diabetes. Scientists saw great promise in stem cells.
The gravity dilemma
That promise is hampered by a frustrating Earth problem: the planet’s gravity makes it difficult to grow many of the cells needed for future therapies, which may require more than a billion per patient. one of these therapies, we don’t have the capacity to do “what Millman says is necessary. The problem? In large bioreactors, cells need to be vigorously awakened or they collapse or fall to the bottom of the tank,” Millman said, “Stress can cause most cells.” At zero G there is no force acting on the cells, so they can grow in reverse,” Svendsen said. The Cedars-Sinai team sent so-called induced pluripotent stem cells. Many scientists consider them the perfect starting materials for all kinds of personalized cell-based treatments. They carry the patient’s own DNA and, thanks to their versatility, are comparable to embryonic stem cells, but are reprogrammed from the skin or blood cells of adults.
For their NASA-funded experiment, a shoebox-sized container contained bags full of cell balls and all the bombs and solutions needed to keep them alive for four weeks. . The transfer will also include neural stem cells derived from Svendsen. Scientists use stem cells derived from their own white blood cells because it is easy for them to give consent.

For comparison, they conduct a remote experiment with a box of earth cells. They can get the space experiment back in five weeks or more if they return to the same SpaceX capsule. The work is designed to pave the way for further NASA-funded research. If they knew how to get billions of cells into orbit, “the impact could be huge,” Svendsen said.

Long flying future
During the same payload launch, researchers at the University of California, San Diego sent blood stem cells to the space station, a repeat of an experiment they conducted last year. They wanted to know if low Earth orbit causes cells to age more quickly, leading to problems that set the stage for precancerous changes. One of the goals is to protect the health of astronauts.

Afshin Beheshti, a researcher at NASA Ames Research Center, said scientists are just beginning to understand some of the risks of space travel. “Each new type of experiment sheds light on how the body responds to the space environment.” Ultimately, Beheshti says, the research should provide more practical, breakthrough solutions, such as new drugs. It can also help with distant human desires such as life on other planets.