A new experiment aims to study ways to produce huge amounts of special cells that can be used to treat many diseases.
The special cells, known as stem cellsarrived on a supply ship recently to the International Space Station for testing in Earth’s orbit.
The cells are part of a project led by researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Researchers are trying to find new ways to make large amounts of stem cells that can produce almost any other type of cell in the human body.
Researcher Dhruv Sareen’s own stem cells are among those that are now orbiting the earth. The goal is to test whether the stem cells will grow better at zero gravity.
“I do not think I would be able to pay whatever it costs now” to take a private trip to 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 how space travel affects the cells in the body. And some help researchers better understand diseases such as cancer.
The only stem cell-based products approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) contain blood-forming stem cells from umbilical cord blood. These products are for patients with blood diseases such as lymphoma. There are no approved treatments that use the type of stem cells that are sent into space, said Jeffrey Millman of Washington University in St. Louis.
However, studies are underway that involve stem cells that target health conditions such as macular degeneration, Parkinson’s disease and heart attack injuries. Millman is involved in research that could lead to a new approach to treating type 1 diabetes.
Lift and difficulties
Researchers see great potential for stem cells.
But stem cell research faces a problem. The earth’s gravity makes it difficult to grow the large number of cells that may be needed for future treatments. Such treatments may require more than one billion cells per patient.
“With current technology right now, even though the FDA immediately approved some of these therapies, we do not have the ability to produce what is needed,” Millman said.
Millman said the problem is that in large bioreactors, the cells have to move in a circular motion very quickly. This stress can cause most cells to die.
“In zero G, there is no force on the cells, so they can only grow in a different way,” said Clive Svendsen of Cedars-Sinai’s Regenerative Medicine Institute.
The Cedars-Sinai team has sent up what are called induced pluripotent stem cells. Many researchers consider them the perfect starting material for many treatments. They carry the patient’s own DNA, and their many uses make them look like embryonic stem cells. However, induced pluripotent stem cells are reprogrammed from adult skin or blood cells.
For their NASA-funded experiment, scientists sent into space a small container containing bags filled with cells and all the material needed to keep them alive for four weeks. The cargo will also contain neural stem cells that came from Svendsen. The researchers used stem cells from their own white blood cells because it was easy for them to approve the use.
The scientists will compare the cells in space with a similar group on Earth. The research team will get the space experiment back in about five weeks, when it returns 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 create billions of cells in orbit, Svendsen said, the effects can “be enormous”.
I’m John Russell.
Laura Ungar reported this story to the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.
Words in this story
stem cell – n. a simple cell in the body that is capable of evolving into any of different types of cells (such as blood cells, skin cells, etc.)
umbilical cord – n. : a long, narrow tube that connects an unborn baby with the placenta of the mother
therapy – n. treatment of physical or mental illness
bioreactor – n. a device in which living organisms make useful substances
stress – n. physical force or pressure
neural – adj. of, related to or involving a nerve or nervous system
derive – v. to have something as a source: to come from something