A new experiment aims to investigate ways to produce huge amounts of special cells that could be used to treat many diseases.
The special cells, called stem cellsrecently arrived on a supply ship to the International Space Station for testing in Earth orbit.
The cells are part of a project led by scientists at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Researchers are trying to find new ways to make large quantities of stem cells capable of producing almost any other type of cell in the human body.
Researcher Dhruv Sareen’s own stem cells are among those currently orbiting the Earth. The goal is to test whether stem cells will grow better in weightlessness.
“I don’t think I would be able to afford what it costs now” to take a private ride in space, Sareen said. “At least a part of me in the cells can go up!”
The experiment is the latest research project to send stem cells into space. Some projects aim to overcome the difficulty of mass-producing the cells. Others explore the impact of space travel on body cells. And some are helping scientists better understand diseases like cancer.
The only stem cell products approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) contain hematopoietic stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood. These products are intended for patients with blood disorders such as types of lymphoma. There are no approved treatments using the type of stem cells sent into space, said Jeffrey Millman of Washington University in St. Louis.
But studies are underway on stem cells that target health conditions such as macular degeneration, Parkinson’s disease and damage caused by heart attacks. Millman is involved in research that could lead to a new approach to treating type 1 diabetes.
Promise and difficulties
Scientists see great possibilities 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 could require more than a billion cells per patient.
“With current technology right now, even if the FDA immediately approved one of these therapies, we don’t have the capacity to produce what’s needed,” Millman said.
Millman said the problem is that, in large bioreactors, cells have to be moved very quickly in a circular motion. This stress can lead to the death of most cells.
“At zero G, there’s no force on the cells, so they can just grow in a different way,” said Clive Svendsen of the Cedars-Sinai Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
The Cedars-Sinai team sent what are called induced pluripotent stem cells. Many scientists consider them to be perfect starting materials for many treatments. They carry the patient’s DNA and their many uses bring them closer to embryonic stem cells. But induced pluripotent stem cells are reprogrammed from adult skin or blood cells.
For their NASA-funded experiment, the researchers sent a small container into space containing bags full of cells and all the materials needed to keep them alive for four weeks. The shipment will also include neural stem cells from Svendsen. Scientists used stem cells derived from their own white blood cells because it was easy for them to approve their use.
Scientists will compare the cells in space with a similar group on Earth. The research team will pick up the space experiment in about five weeks, when they return to the same SpaceX spacecraft.
The experiment is designed to pave the way for more NASA-supported research. If they are able to discover a way to manufacture billions of cells in orbit, Svendsen said, the effects “could be enormous.”
I am John Russell.
Laura Ungar reported this story for The Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.
words in this story
stem cell – nm a single cell in the body that is capable of developing into one of several different cell types (such as blood cells, skin cells, etc.)
umbilical cord – nm : a long, narrow tube that connects an unborn baby to its mother’s placenta
therapy – nm the treatment of physical or mental illnesses
bioreactor – nm a device in which living organisms create useful substances
stress – nm physical force or pressure
neural – adj. of, relating to, or involving a nerve or the nervous system
derive – v. to have something as a source: to come from something