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Stem cells to be made on orbiting space station to test micrograv manufacturing

Kinda feels like living in the future we thought we'd have, for a change

Stem cells could be manufactured in laboratories floating in space one day if, as is suspected, experiments show they're easier to grow in microgravity conditions than here on Earth.

Scientists from Cedars-Sinai, a non-profit health science centre, have teamed up with Axiom Space, a private aerospace startup, to deliver materials and equipment needed to manufacture stem cells to the International Space Station in the upcoming Ax-2 flight scheduled for May 9.

Stem cells are taken from mammal embryos in the first stages of life are used for different applications in medicine, like cell-based therapies where they're injected into a patient to repair and regenerate damaged tissues, or for research and drug development.  But manufacturing them at large scales is difficult here on Earth due to the pull of gravity.

"Gravity constantly pulls these pluripotent stem cells towards Earth, putting pressure on them and providing a stimulus to start turning into other cell types," Clive Svendsen, executive director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute and co-principal investigator on the mission, said in a statement.

The researchers believe the microgravity conditions in the ISS will make stem cells easier to grow. Astronauts will conduct a series of experiments to test this idea in practice. 

"We will explore how well stem cells can grow, how well they can be produced, and their ability to transform into other cell types like beating heart cells. Basically we are interested in seeing if we can leverage microgravity to improve stem cell production, better than what we can do on Earth," Arun Sharma, co-principal investigator of the project and a stem cell biologist in the Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute and Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai, told The Register.

"We are aiming to confirm earlier studies that have shown that more of these cells can be grown faster in orbit. To manufacture the cells in orbit, we will 'reprogram' skin and blood cells into stem cells, which is a process that takes a few weeks. But maybe in space this can happen more quickly or efficiently," he said. 

Shinya Yamanaka, a professor working at Kyoto University's Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, and his colleagues discovered that introducing four different genes into normal cells can transform them into pluripotent stem cells. He later shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2012 for his work. 

Eventually, we would like to do more advanced experiments, such as modifying the DNA itself

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station will grow pluripotent stem cells for the first time and be tasked with inserting DNA that encodes for a red fluorescent protein, Sharma told us.

"This is a nice visual way to examine DNA uptake by these stem cells, since if it gets in, they will glow red. Eventually, we would like to do more advanced experiments, such as modifying the DNA itself. But these early tests will be a foundation for those future experiments," he said.

Billions of stem cells need to be manufactured at scale for clinical and research applications. If the experiments do prove that they can be grown more easily and quickly in space, it could spur academic and commercial interest in launching biomedical labs in orbit.

"With launch costs dropping and spaceflight becoming more accessible and common, we can envision a future where biomedical research facilities frequently conduct experiments focusing on basic cell biology, and translational applications such as cell biomanufacturing [in space]," Sharma concluded. ®

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