This past Saturday, a spacecraft carrying over 5,800 pounds of cargo docked at the International Space Station (ISS) carrying a number of science experiments, including a couple transporting bits of human life. The spacecraft delivered two batches of human stem cells, as reported by Laura Ungar for the Associated Press (AP). Researchers will observe how the cells behave in zero gravity.
Stem cells develop into other cell types in the body, such as muscle cells and nerve cells. Scientists hope to one day use stem cells to treat human diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. Researchers from Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles have sent one batch into space to see if the cells will grow better in low Earth orbit, according to Howard Fine of the Los Angeles Business Journal. The cells are induced pluripotent stem cells, a type which could be used to create and test potential treatments tailored to an individual, according to a statement from Cedars-Sinai.
Scientists are struggling to grow enough of these cells on Earth for the types of therapies doctors might be able to use in the future. Jeffrey Millman, a biomedical engineer at Washington University in St. Louis who is not affiliated with the Cedars-Sinai research, says the cells are stirred in large tanks on Earth in order to keep the cells from clumping or falling to the bottom, according to the AP. But the stirring is also harmful for the cells. The Cedars-Sinai researchers want to see how the cells perform while floating in microgravity, according to the Los Angeles Business Journal.
In the other experiment, researchers from the University of California, San Diego, are repeating an experiment from last year in which they measured whether blood stem cells aged faster aboard the ISS, writes the AP. Since astronauts can spend months at a time aboard the ISS, and since NASA is preparing for future space missions, scientists are trying to learn more about the effect of time spent in microgravity on human health. Previous research has shown that extended trips to space might cause health problems such as vision impairment, muscle decay and bone density loss.
“There’s more unknowns in space than there are knowns,” Afshin Beheshti, a researcher at NASA Ames Research Center, tells the AP. “Any new type of experiment is going to shed light on how the body responds to the space environment.”