Automated stem cell factories to regenerate organs are about to be sent into space

Some time in the not-too-distant future, a patient who has had a heart attack will spend some time recovering in the hospital before getting a transplant. Bizarrely, however, their surgery date would be set around a resupply mission to a space station. That’s because their new heart wasn’t piloted or flown from anywhere on Earth — rather, it was grown in space using stem cells.

While other scientists began to explore extraterrestrial life, some regenerative medicine researchers — scientists studying how to regenerate and repair human tissue — wanted to create it themselves by developing Stem cell development in space. Their dream of establishing a bio-oil pipeline in low Earth orbit may sound strange, but the commercial space age is allowing researchers to begin making it a reality.

Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are simple human cells that can develop into several complex organs. They are derived from adult skin or blood cells, in contrast to embryonic stem cells, which are found in the early stages of embryonic development. Due to space and manpower constraints on the International Space Station, experiments to grow iPSCs in microgravity are expensive and rare. However, the few that have been conducted seem to point to specific benefits for growing certain types of cells under conditions of low oxygen and microgravity that are not renewable on Earth. For longtime believers in the stem cell research potential of space like Arun Sharma, a research scientist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine, these studies are like authentication.

“When I first started doing this in the mid-2010s, there were very few other people in the stem cell field who really took it seriously,” Sharma told The Daily Beast. “Now, there are a lot of people who are wanting to get into this field: real big stem cell scientists, biomedical research institutions — everyone wants to get a part of it.”

Sharma is no stranger to space. Raised in Huntsville, Alabama, home of NASA’s Space Camp, he trained as a biologist but has always strived for space research. Now, he’s the principal co-investigator of a recently announced two-year NASA mission to understand the effects of microgravity on stem cells.

Historically, regenerative medicine researchers have desired to conduct personalized cell therapy with iPSCs by injecting dysfunctional organs with stem cells cultured from the patient’s own tissue. nucleus — and regrow entire organs. Although salamanders and starfish can regrow limbs, harnessing stem cells for human regeneration at this scale remains elusive, said University of Bioengineering and Surgery professor William Wagner Pittsburgh told The Daily Beast. Instead, researchers are now focusing on products that stem cells secrete such as growth factors, a broad term that refers to the communication chemicals cells give off to tell each other to grow. develop faster or in a coordinated fashion. As it turns out, microgravity can affect these secretions in unknown ways.

“One thing we really needed was the numbers,” says Wagner. “There is an ongoing process from exploratory to applied research and we are still moving towards discovery — and that is where we should be.”

There is early data showing that space constraints can reduce iPSC productivity. For example, stem cells exposed to low oxygen levels that send signals to heal, regenerate, and regenerate become overwhelmed. Wagner says that the conditions in space are similar to those for vacuum chambers on Earth.

“There are a lot of people who are looking to get into this field…everyone wants to be a part of it.”

– Arun Sharma, research scientist at Cedars-Sinai . Medical Center’s Institute of Regenerative Medicine

In addition, stem cells often do not grow well in petri dishes. However, microgravity actually mimics certain conditions in the human body, allowing stem cells to achieve lifelike three-dimensional growth. The resulting clusters of cells can then mimic the dynamics of organs in a way that can be easily studied (such models were used early in the pandemic to study the effects of COVID to the lungs). If they become close enough to human internal organs, says Wagner, 3D stem cell fusions could even replace living animals in disease modeling studies.

“Gravity is constantly pulling cells onto the culture dish as we grow them,” Clive Svendsen, director of Cedars-Sinai’s Institute of Regenerative Medicine and co-investigator of Sharma, told The Daily Beast. In contrast, microgravity on board the ISS or orbiting satellite could allow researchers to keep cells in an immature state for longer, where they have the potential to become a variety of cell types. difference. “It could be a whole new way to produce induced pluripotent stem cells,” he said.

According to Wagner, research based on these distinct interests, along with a business model to commercialize the findings, will be what is needed to propel stem cell research into space. For now, however, the goals of Sharma and Svendsen’s NASA-backed mission are simple: measure stem cell production, observe stem cell properties, and track how they develop into different types. specialized cells from their pluripotent beginnings.

The team’s upcoming mission, says Sharma, “will hopefully be a ‘reference mission'” that generates reliable, reproducible data. high-scale production without understanding basic science. ”

As this research moves forward, scientists are also working to address the biggest barrier to conducting stem cell studies in space: the fact that astronauts’ time on the ISS is short. very limited and valuable. It is extremely expensive to train them to grow a batch of stem cells, let alone an ideal number to compare with cells cultured on Earth, says Svendsen. That’s why he’s directing another mission coming out in early June that will test a automatic system for culturing cell vesicles on the ISS. Currently, the researchers are preparing the final steps for June 7, the scheduled test launch date on a SpaceX resupply mission to the orbiting outpost. Svendsen said the experimental design was simple. “We had the same bag on Earth and on the space station for four weeks,” he explains. We brought the bag down and asked, ‘What happened? Does it grow better? Is it faster? ‘”

Space-grown iPSCs won’t be in the clinic anytime soon, but automating their production could be perfected as early as five years, Wagner said. If it works, robotics and AI-powered technologies could even begin to benefit stem cell research on Earth. However, for any investment to be worthwhile, there must be a substantial benefit to growing stem cells in microgravity than on Earth. “If you’re skeptical, you don’t know yet if there’s an advantage,” says Svendsen, which is something the upcoming experiments will aim to address.

In many ways, now is the best time to answer these questions. Commercial space companies have reduced launch costs, making the process of sending experiments to space the cheapest ever. Plans for national and private space stations after the ISS is decommissioned for a decade will provide even more “real estate” for research, Wagner said. These advances are making new spaces accessible for biomedical and regenerative research.

“I think we are in the discovery phase,” said Sharma. “But I’m really optimistic that we’ll be able to do something that’s simply not possible on the ground.” Automated stem cell factories to regenerate organs are about to be sent into space


Hung is a Interreviewed U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Hung joined Interreviewed in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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