Researchers at the UC San Diego Health Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center announced Wednesday they had received a three-year, nearly $5 million award from NASA to develop and launch stem cell experiments aboard the International Space Station.
A collaboration between UCSD Health’s Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine and Space Tango will seek to develop a stem cell orbital research laboratory within the space station and launch three collaborative research projects within it.
Stem cells self-renew, generating more stem cells, and specialize into tissue-specific cells, such as blood, brain and liver cells, making them ideal for biological studies far from Earth’s resources, according to hospital staff.
The goal of the new effort is to use microgravity, and the unique properties of stem cells to better understand how space flight affects the human body. The studies also are designed to inform how aging, degenerative diseases, cancers and other conditions develop in a setting with increased exposure to ionizing radiation and pro-inflammatory factors.
The findings could speed the development of new therapeutics for a broad array of degenerative diseases on Earth.
“We envision that the next thriving ecosystem of commercial stem cell companies, the next nexus for biotechnology, could be created 250 miles overhead by the establishment of these capabilities on the ISS,” said Dr. Catriona Jamieson, director of the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center.
The project’s first flight to the space station is planned for mid-2021. The space station’s stem cell lab is planned to be fully operational and self-sustaining by 2025.
With hardware designed by Space Tango — a developer of fully automated, remote-controlled systems for research and manufacturing in orbit — initial projects in the new lab will include investigations of blood cancers and immune reactivation syndromes, brain stem cell regeneration and repair and liver cell injury and repair.
In the NASA Twins Study, investigators around the nation assessed identical twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly. Scott flew aboard the space station for 342 days in 2015 and 2016, while Mark remained on Earth. Researchers, including UC San Diego School of Medicine’s Brinda Rana, described the ways Scott’s body differed from Mark’s due to his time spent in microgravity, including signs of pre-cancer.
In the new space station lab, UCSD Health’s researchers will use stem cell-derived blood and immune cells to look for biomarkers — tell-tale molecular changes — as cancer develops and immune cells malfunction in microgravity. They will also work with experts in the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego and Space Tango to build special microscopes and bioreactors that fit the space station lab space and transmit images to Earth in near real-time.
“If we can find early predictors of cancer progression on the ISS, we are ideally positioned to rapidly translate them into clinical trials in our Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center back on Earth,” Jamieson said.
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