Scientists in the United States sent experiments with stem cells to the International Space Station to see if they grow better in zero gravity conditions. Stem cells can generate almost any type of cell in the body and have the potential to be used to treat various diseases.
Researchers Dhruv Sarin’s stem cells arrived at the space station on a supply ship over the weekend.
The experiment by scientists at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles is the latest research project that involves sending stem cells into space. Some, in this way, want to overcome the difficulty on Earth of producing cells in large quantities. Others explore how space travel affects the body’s cells. And some help to better understand diseases like cancer.
“By pushing boundaries like this, it’s knowledge, it’s science, and it’s learning,” said Clive Svendson, CEO of the Cedars-Sinai Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
However, the mundane applications of much of this research may be off in some way.
At this time, the only stem cell-based products approved by medical regulators in the United States are blood-forming stem cells from cord blood for patients with blood disorders, such as some cases of lymphoma. There is no approved treatment that uses a type of stem cell sent into space or another derived from them, said Jeffrey Millman, a biomedical engineering specialist at Washington University in St. Louis.
But ongoing clinical trials involving stem cells focus on conditions such as macular degeneration, Parkinson’s disease and damage from heart attacks. And Millman is involved in research that could lead to a new approach to treating type 1 diabetes.
But all these promises are hampered by a mundane problem: Planetary gravity makes it difficult to grow the large numbers of cells needed for future treatments, which may require more than a billion per patient.
“With zero gravity, there is no force on the cells, so they can grow in a different way,” Svendson said.