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Sending Stem Cells Into Space to Develop Medicine of Tomorrow

Scientists from Cedars-Sinai are gearing up to send stem cells into space to test whether it is possible to produce large batches in zero gravity for use in treating a variety of diseases back on Earth.

Sending Stem Cells Into Space

The investigators are partnering with a private firm—Space Tango, of Lexington, Kentucky—to send "induced pluripotent stem cells" (known as iPSCs) to the International Space Station for a month as part of an anticipated NASA mission in the spring.

These specialized human stem cells are created in the lab from a person's blood or skin cells and can generate nearly any cell in the body. Cells made this way carry the individual’s own DNA, making them ideal for creating tailored treatments for debilitating diseases.

Scientists at the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute and the Cedars-Sinai Biomanufacturing Center want to determine how zero gravity influences the production of stem cells. A major issue with producing iPSCs on Earth may involve gravity-induced tension, which makes it hard for cells to expand and grow. In a zero gravity environment, this tension no longer presents a barrier, potentially making it easier for stem cells to multiply faster.

“Understanding how iPSCs grow in space will help us understand some of the effects of space flight and space irradiation on human health and perhaps lead to better ways to manufacture large numbers of cells in the absence of gravity,” said Clive Svendsen, PhD, executive director of the Regenerative Medicine Institute and professor of Biomedical Sciences and Medicine at Cedars-Sinai.

Clive N. Svendsen, PhD

Clive N. Svendsen, PhD

Clinical-grade stem cells already are being manufactured at the biomanufacturing center under the direction of Dhruv Sareen, PhD, and his team, who are collaborating on the space project. The stem cells are used by labs around the world for their own research into the medical uses of these early cellular building blocks.

Svendsen is using his own iPSCs for the mission to space. Before sending the cells to the International Space Station, Svendsen and Sareen will do a dry run of the experiment in December at Cedars-Sinai.

Cedars-Sinai scientists will present their ideas on how space can potentially advance stem cell-based therapies during two gatherings of scientists and aerospace professionals next week.

At the ASCEND conference in Las Vegas, organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Svendsen will join a panel on Nov. 15 to discuss how growing stem cells in zero gravity may enhance stem cell growth and reduce cell differentiation—two major issues that exist under normal gravity conditions. Overcoming these issues can help scientists develop technology to grow stem cells on Earth.

On Nov. 17, Arun Sharma, PhD, a research scientist in the Regenerative Medicine Institute, Department of Biomedical Sciences and the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai, will lead a discussion on biomanufacturing stem cells in space and on his ongoing research on heart cells in space during a virtual Stem Cells in Space meeting run by the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

Arun Sharma, PhD

Arun Sharma, PhD

Sharma previously sent stem cell-derived heart cells to the International Space Station to study the effects of spaceflight and to understand how low gravity affects the heart at the cellular level. The team found that, compared to the experience on Earth, the stem cells on the space station exhibited different patterns of gene expression and caused alterations in the way the cells handled calcium, which plays an important role in making heart cells beat.

Sharma’s continued research on this topic not only benefits patients with cardiovascular issues on Earth but can also potentially help astronauts on future long-duration spaceflight missions.

“Before this mission, little was known about the role of microgravity in influencing human cardiac function at the cellular level,” Sharma said. “We are just starting to understand how stem cell function, division, and survival could be enhanced by growing these stem cells in a low-gravity environment. If we can show that microgravity is beneficial to stem cell function, then perhaps we could leverage space for stem cell biomanufacturing.”

Leaders at Cedars-Sinai said they are excited to pursue this line of scientific inquiry in the hope of advancing the frontiers of clinical treatment.

“Going to space to improve stem cell production is consistent with the innovative discovery programs at the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute,” said Shlomo Melmed, MB, ChB, executive vice president of Academic Affairs and dean of the Medical Faculty at Cedars-Sinai. “This bold next step in the evolution of this forward-looking science will advance our progress toward future cell therapies. The potential of regenerative medicine is truly out of this world.”