Do you think studying stem cells in space could possibly help us down on Earth? This might sound far out, but scientists are finding that researching stem cells outside our planet could help us better understand the physiological changes to astronauts in orbit and, more broadly, provide key insights about disease progression and treatment on Earth.
When stem cells are out of this world
Space travel plucks us away from the pull of Earth’s gravity and exposes us to solar radiation – novel conditions that provide new opportunities for research. While it is impractical to send a whole team of biologists to space, extraterrestrial physiology can still be studied by preparing cells on Earth, sending them to the International Space Station (ISS) and monitoring them remotely using automated experimental systems such as Space Tango’s CubeLab and NASA’s Bioculture System.
With these technologies, scientists sent human stem cell-derived heart cells to space for the first time in 2016 (see Figure 1). Dr. Joseph Wu, Stanford University, USA, found that these beating cells behaved differently in microgravity, yet returned to normal once back on earth. This study revealed the remarkable adaptability of human heart cells to changing environmental conditions, setting the stage for future experiments.
To take innovative stem cell research like Dr. Wu’s to the next level, NASA is constructing the Integrated Space Stem Cell Orbital Research (ISSCOR), a dedicated state-of-the-art stem cell lab within the ISS whose mission is to apply the power of stem cells in space to improve quality of life on Earth.
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