KENNEDY SPACE CENTER (FL), May 16, 2023 – Age-related conditions such as stroke, cancer, dementia, and other neurodegenerative diseases can be debilitating for patients and their families and pose an escalating health burden in the United States. Stem cell-based therapies are one possible solution; however, these types of treatments require large numbers of stem cells that are not easy to produce. To address this issue, scientists in the field of regenerative medicine are turning to the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory for help.
Scientists are working to understand how to grow large amounts of high-quality adult stem cells for cell therapy. On Earth, the production of large quantities of stem cells has been challenging because 2D culture conditions do not entirely recapitulate the native environment of the human body. However, the microgravity conditions on the ISS enable three-dimensional cell growth that more closely resembles how cells grow in the human body. This makes microgravity an ideal platform to produce stem cells to improve treatments and patient care on Earth.
To understand microgravity’s impact on the production of stem cells and stem cell-based products, researchers from Cedars-Sinai are sending an investigation to the space station on Axiom Space’s second private astronaut mission (Ax-2). It is the first in a series of experiments that will evaluate the process of reprogramming skin cells (fibroblasts) into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) capable of producing a variety of tissue cells—heart, brain, and blood—that could be used in regenerative medicine therapies. The project is sponsored by the ISS National Lab and funded through NASA’s In-Space Production Applications program.
“One of the biggest limiting factors in clinical therapies here on Earth is that it’s always hard to make enough high-quality stem cells needed for the treatments,” said Arun Sharma, an assistant professor at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “So, if we can leverage microgravity to grow more stem cells than we could on Earth, that could be a huge benefit for patient care.”
These stem cells could be used in a number of ways, such as in disease modeling, as a means to test new therapeutics, and in stem-cell therapies. For this investigation, the team will send both stem cells and skin cells to the space station for a period of five days. Using the stem cells, the researchers will examine how quickly the cells divide and will analyze their proliferation.
“We know that stem cells are very adaptable to whatever environment they’re put into,” Sharma said. “Their genes change very quickly, within hours. So, the changes we see in those five days may be enough for us to get really good scientific data.”
The skin cells will be used to study microgravity’s effects on the early stages of transfection—the process of reprogramming adult cells into stem cells. A key part of transfection is introducing the DNA that will reprogram the cells, and the researchers will closely observe this as part of the experiment.
Through this investigation and others that will follow, the team aims to better understand how growing stem cells in space could be harnessed for valuable biomanufacturing applications, Sharma said.
“Previous stem cell experiments on the space station have actually shown that there can be an improvement in how these cells divide in microgravity, as well as a change in their pluripotency, or their ability to be a stem cell,” he said. “If we can grow cells two- or three-fold better than what we can do on the ground, that’s really exciting not just for basic science for using these stem cells but also for clinical applications.”
Private astronaut missions are providing researchers a new access point in leveraging the ISS National Lab, accelerating research and technology development in low Earth orbit, bringing further knowledge to the scientific community, and enabling commerce in space. The Ax-2 mission is targeted for launch from Kennedy Space Center no earlier than May 21 at 5:37 p.m. EDT. This mission will include more than 15 ISS National Lab-sponsored payloads. To learn more about all ISS National Lab-sponsored research on Ax-2, please visit our launch page.
Download a high-resolution image: Pluripotent stem cells
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About the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory: The International Space Station (ISS) is a one-of-a-kind laboratory that enables research and technology development not possible on Earth. As a public service enterprise, the ISS National Lab allows researchers to leverage this multiuser facility to improve life on Earth, mature space-based business models, advance science literacy in the future workforce, and expand a sustainable and scalable market in low Earth orbit. Through this orbiting national laboratory, research resources on the space station are available to support non-NASA science, technology and education initiatives from U.S. government agencies, academic institutions, and the private sector. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), Inc. manages the ISS National Lab, under Cooperative Agreement with NASA, facilitating access to its permanent microgravity research environment, a powerful vantage point in low Earth orbit, and the extreme and varied conditions of space. To learn more about the ISS National Lab, visit www.ISSNationalLab.org.
About Axiom Space: Axiom Space is building history, guided by the vision of a thriving home in space that benefits every human, everywhere. The leading provider of human spaceflight services and developer of human-rated space infrastructure, Axiom Space operates end-to-end missions to the International Space Station today while developing its successor, Axiom Station – a permanent commercial destination in low-Earth orbit that will sustain human growth off the planet and bring untold benefits back home. For more information about Axiom Space, visit www.axiomspace.com.
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