Stem Cells In Space

Is there a possibility that studying stem cells in space could help us down on earth? This might sound unusual, but scientist are finding that researching stem cells in space, can help us to better understand the physiological changes to astronauts in the orbit. Furthermore, studying stem cells in space provides key understanding about development of disease and treatment on Earth.

Stem cells in space

Studying stem cells on International Space Station
Studying stem cells on International Space Station

Traveling to space takes us away from the pull of Earth’s gravity and exposing us to solar radiation. These conditions provides new opportunities for research. While it is almost impossible to send an entire team of biologists to space. To study extraterrestrial physiology, cells can be prepared on Earth and send to International Space Station (ISS). Then monitoring them remotely using automated experimental system such as Space Tango’s CubeLab and NASA’s Bioculture System.

For the first time in 2016, scientist sent human stem cell-derived heart cells to space. Dr. Joseph Wu, Stanford University, USA, found that these beating cells behave differently in microgravity. Yet return to normal when get back to Earth. Furthermore, the study showed the outstanding adaptability of human heart cells to changing environmental conditions, preparing for future experiments. To take stem cell research to next level like Dr. Wu’s, NASA is building the Integrated Space Stem Cell Orbital Research (ISSCOR). A dedicated and advance stem cell lab within the ISS whose aim is to apply the potential of stem cells in space to improve the quality of life on Earth.

Cancer research with celestial radiation

Dr. Catriona Jamieson, University of California, San Diego, USA, is among the researchers using ISSCOR to improve treatments for patients on Earth. The solar radiations cause mutation in our DNA, leading to cancer. Tissue stem cells, in particular are at risk to this accumulation of DNA damage. For example, blood cells exposed to cosmic levels of radiation rapidly to a precancerous state. This allows scientist to study disease progression at a fast pace as compare to that on Earth. Moreover, being in space causes immune cells in contact with cancer cells to malfunction. By studying early stage blood cancer and immune reactivation syndrome in space, Dr. Jamieson is looking forward to identifying treatments rapidly to translate them to clinical trials.

What future holds?

Researchers aim that one day stem cells can be use as a source of healthy functional cells that can be transplanted into patients to treat many conditions. More than a billions cells maybe needed for a successful transplantation therapy, but it can be difficult to achieve in laboratory. Studies have shown that various stem cells grow better in space than on earth. Stem cells grown in space also be better at combining to form a connected tissue upon transplant, a microgravity triggers favorable changes in cellular structure. Researchers may find ways to promote stem cell expansion and tissue integration to enhance stem cell therapy by studying these mechanism.

Stem cells in space are being studied in search of developing therapeutics for disease from cancer and aging to neurodegenerative and heart diseases. Therefore, learning more about stem cells in space not only signifies the understanding of extraterrestrial travel impact on the body. It can also make important contributions to terrestrial human health.