Scientists send stem cells into space in NASA-supported experiment

A new experiment aims to study ways to produce massive amounts of special cells that can be used to treat many diseases.

The special cells, known as stem cellsrecently arrived on a supply ship at the International Space Station for tests in orbit.

The cells are part of a project led by scientists at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. The researchers are trying to find new ways to make large amounts of stem cells that can produce almost any other type of cell in the human body.

Researcher Dhruv Sareen’s own stem cells are now in orbit. The aim is to test whether the stem cells will grow better in weightlessness.

“I don’t think I’d be able to afford what it costs right now” to take a private ride to space, Sareen said. “At least part of me can go up in cells!”

The experiment is the latest research project in which stem cells are sent into space. Some projects aim to overcome the difficulty of mass production of the cells. Others are investigating how space travel affects cells in the body. And some help scientists better understand diseases like cancer.

The only stem cell-based products approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) contain blood-forming stem cells from umbilical cord blood. These products are intended for patients with blood disorders such as types of lymphoma. There are no approved treatments that use the kind of stem cells sent to space, said Jeffrey Millman of Washington University in St. Louis.

But studies are underway with stem cells targeting health problems such as macular degeneration, Parkinson’s disease and heart attack damage. Millman is involved in research that could lead to a new approach to treating type 1 diabetes.

Promise and difficulties

Scientists see great potential for stem cells.

But stem cell research faces a problem. Earth’s gravity makes it difficult to grow the large numbers of cells that may be needed for future treatments. Such treatments may require more than a billion cells per patient.

“With current technology, even if the FDA immediately approves one of these therapies,” we won’t have the ability to manufacture what is needed, Millman said.

Millman said the problem is that in large bioreactors, the cells have to be moved very quickly in a circular motion. This stress can cause most cells to die.

“In zero G, there’s no force on the cells, so they can just grow in a different way,” says Clive Svendsen of Cedars-Sinai’s Regenerative Medicine Institute.

The Cedars-Sinai team has sent so-called induced pluripotent stem cells. Many scientists consider them the perfect starting material for many treatments. They carry a patient’s own DNA and because of their many uses they resemble embryonic stem cells. But induced pluripotent stem cells are reprogrammed from the skin or blood cells of adults.

For their experiment, which is funded by NASA, researchers sent a small container into space with bags filled with cells and all the materials needed to keep them alive for four weeks. The payload will also include neural stem cells sourced from Svendsen. The scientists used stem cells from their own white blood cells because they could easily approve their use.

The scientists will compare the cells in space with a similar group on Earth. The research team will get the space experiment back in about five weeks, when it returns on the same SpaceX starship.

The experiment aims to pave the way for more NASA-backed research. If they can discover a way to orbit billions of cells, Svendsen said, the effects “could be enormous.”

I’m John Russell.

Laura Ungar covered this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in this story

stem cell – n. a simple cell in the body that can develop into one of several types of cells (such as blood cells, skin cells, etc.)

umbilical cord – n. : a long, narrow tube that connects an unborn baby to its mother’s placenta

therapy – n. the treatment of physical or mental illnesses

bioreactor – n. a device in which living organisms make useful substances

tension – n. physical force or pressure

neural – adj. of, pertaining to, or involved in a nerve or nervous system

to distract – v. to have something as a source: to come from somewhere