At a Glance
- The National Stem Cell Foundation has connected leading research teams in stem cell biology for a first-in-kind study of neurodegeneration on the ISS National Lab.
- A National Stem Cell Foundation-funded investigation from researchers at the New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute and Aspen Neuroscience launched to the ISS on SpaceX's 19th commercial resupply services mission last week.
- This is the first bi-coastal microgravity research collaboration between leading experts in stem cell biology to develop three-dimensional models of Parkinson’s disease and primary progressive multiple sclerosis for a study of neuroinflammation on the ISS.
- This collaborative and highly innovative approach to studying neurodegeneration in microgravity has the potential to advance and accelerate new drug and cell therapies for Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and a number of other neurodegenerative diseases affecting large numbers of the global population.
When I was first asked in early 2016 if we were funding a research project that might benefit from study in microgravity, I knew almost nothing about research in space. A couple of months and several conversations with colleagues later, I was fully aware of the game-changing advances being made possible with study in microgravity and was excited by the opportunity to move a project forward with this potential leapfrogging ability to see and understand biology in a way not possible on Earth.
Two of our funded research projects immediately came to mind, one in New York studying cell cross-talk between support cells around oligodendrocytes (the myelin-producing cells that are damaged or lost in multiple sclerosis and a number of rare genetic disorders) and one in California developing a dopaminergic cell replacement therapy for Parkinson’s disease using the kind of dopamine-producing nerve cells lost in Parkinson’s. Both projects were led by recognized experts in their fields and both would likely benefit from study in microgravity, but the synergies possible if they joined hands might change everything. It would be a collaboration across institutions and disciplines, but if they were willing, it could be a collaboration that might change thinking in a field of study.
On SpaceX’s 19th commercial resupply services (CRS) mission, the National Stem Cell Foundation-funded collaboration between renowned researchers at the New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute and Aspen Neuroscience sent a first-in-kind study of neurodegeneration to the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory with patient-specific, three-dimensional organoids of Parkinson’s and primary progressive multiple sclerosis. The organoids incorporate microglia, the inflammatory cells of the immune system implicated in the development of Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and other neurodegenerative diseases. The engineering required to facilitate the transport of cells and culture in orbit is being led by ISS National Lab Implementation Partner Space Tango.
The ability to observe cell-to-cell interaction, cell migration, changes in gene expression, and the common pathways of neuroinflammation for both diseases in microgravity is an opportunity to watch biological processes in a way that’s not possible on Earth. The potential for new insight into the fundamental mechanisms of disease development in neurodegeneration could enable progress across the field for diseases and conditions affecting many millions of people worldwide—and accelerate new drug and cell therapy options for the patients who need them now.
I am grateful and constantly amazed by the unselfish exchange of ideas and technology between these two world-class research teams. Working together, they’ve generated innovative approaches to disease modeling in microgravity that may answer questions we have or don’t yet know to ask about how neurodegenerative diseases develop. And the answers to those questions might lead to the identification of new pathways to intervention for diseases that affect so many of us.