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Scientists Are About to Try to Create Stem Cells in Space

Stem cell research is expanding beyond earthly confines. Scientists from Cedars-Sinai in California have partnered with the private company Axiom Space to help them produce stem cells aboard the International Space Station—an apparent first that will test whether these cells can be manufactured more efficiently in a microgravity environment. The initial cargo needed for the two-year-long experiments will be delivered via the Axiom Mission 2 spaceflight, set to launch early next month.

Stem cells are often considered the building blocks of life. Soon after the embryo forms, these cells will start to divide and then mature, or differentiate, into every other cell and organ of the human body. As we age, they continue to replenish various types of cells, helping us heal from injury and illness. We’ve already learned how to extract and transplant certain stem cells to help people recover from conditions such as leukemia. But scientists hope that the rejuvenating potential of stem cells will one day allow us to treat a large variety of health issues.

For now, though, we’re still in the early stages of stem cell therapy, and there remain many hurdles toward making them a practical medical treatment. One of these hurdles is the resources it typically takes to grow a healthy and sizable batch of stem cells in the lab. But in recent years, some scientists have argued that space could help ease that particular problem. Some research has suggested that the microgravity environment found in space is a better match for the conditions that stem cells naturally grow in than those found in a standard lab. One hope is that space-grown stem cells will be easier to produce and possibly even healthier than the Earth-grown version. Simply seeing how they grow in space might help us better understand their inner workings, including how they can become cancerous.

Among the many researchers studying stem cells in space is a team at Cedars-Sinai in California. They and others have previously sent samples of stem cells to the International Space Station for brief periods of time, including induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are derived from adult cells that can then turn into any other cell. But now, they appear to be broadening their ambitions with an attempt at a novel feat: creating iPSCs from scratch aboard the ISS.

“This is the first time that induced pluripotent stem cells will be made entirely in space,” Arun Sharma, one of the project’s principal investigators and a stem cell biologist at the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, told Gizmodo in an email. “These cells are very powerful because they can be made from a small sample of skin or blood from a process called ‘reprogramming’ which takes a few weeks.”

The team’s research is funded by a NASA grant. But their materials will be ferried by the Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2), the second flight to the ISS made by the Texas-based company, which is scheduled to launch May 9. Axiom has become a major presence in space travel as of late. Last April, the Axiom Mission 1 became the first fully privately crewed spaceflight to the ISS. NASA has also chosen the company as one of its partners in creating the next generation of space suits intended for humanity’s return to the Moon, which were previewed last month. And the company plans to use Ax-2 and future missions as stepping stones to its ultimate goal: the creation of the first truly commercialized space station, intended as a successor to the ISS.

As for the Cedars-Sinai team, this will be the first of three missions planned over the next two years. Along the way, the scientists will examine if spaceflight changes or enhances the reprogramming/production of iPSCs, as well as their ability to divide and differentiate once made. And if these and other stem cell-related experiments prove fruitful, then space could very well become a crucial part of this burgeoning research field.

“If successful in showing that stem cells can be grown or produced better in orbit, we may be able to scale up our production for further academic and commercial/industrial applications,” Sharma said.

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