Scientists send stem cells into space as part of NASA-supported experiment


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The new experiment aims to explore ways to produce a huge number of special cells that could be used to treat many diseases.

special cells called stem cellsrecently arrived on a resupply ship to the International Space Station for Earth orbit testing.

The cells are part of a project led by scientists at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Researchers are trying to find new ways to produce large numbers of stem cells that can produce almost any other cell in the human body.

Researcher Druv Sarin’s own stem cells are among those now in Earth’s orbit. The goal is to test whether stem cells grow better in zero gravity.

“I don’t think I can now pay what it costs” to take a private trip to space, Sarin said. “At least a part of me in cages can rise!”

The experiment is the latest research project that involves sending stem cells into space. Some projects aim to overcome the difficulties of mass production of cells. Others are investigating how space travel affects the body’s cells. And some are helping scientists better understand diseases like cancer.

The only stem cell products approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) contain hematopoietic cord blood stem cells. These products are intended for patients with blood disorders such as lymphoma. According to Jeffrey Millman of Washington University in St. Louis, there are no approved treatments using such stem cells that are sent into space.

But research is underway using stem cells that target health conditions such as macular degeneration, Parkinson’s disease, and heart attack damage. Millman is involved in research that could lead to a new approach to treating type 1 diabetes.

Promise and Difficulties

Scientists see great opportunities for stem cells.

But stem cell research faces a challenge. Earth’s gravity makes it difficult to grow large numbers of cells that may be needed for future treatments. Such a treatment may require over a billion cells per patient.

“With current technology right now, even if the FDA approves any of these treatments immediately, we don’t have” the ability to manufacture what is needed, Millman said.

Millman said the problem is that in large bioreactors, the cells have to be moved around very quickly. This stress can lead to the death of most cells.

“In zero gravity, there is no force acting on the cells, so they can just grow differently,” said Clive Svendsen of the Cedars-Sinai Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

The Cedars-Sinai team sent what they call induced pluripotent stem cells. Many scientists consider them an ideal starting material for many treatments. They carry the patient’s own DNA, and their many uses make them similar to embryonic stem cells. But induced pluripotent stem cells are reprogrammed from adult skin or blood cells.

For their NASA-funded experiment, the researchers sent a small container into space containing bags filled with cells and all the supplies needed to keep them alive for four weeks. The shipment will also include neural stem cells obtained from Svendsen. The scientists used stem cells derived from their own white blood cells because it was easy for them to approve their use.

Scientists will compare cells in space with a similar group on Earth. The research team will return the space experiment in about five weeks, when it returns on the same SpaceX spacecraft.

The experiment is designed to pave the way for further NASA-supported research. If they can find a way to create billions of cells in orbit, the effect “could be huge,” Svendsen said.

I am John Russell.

Laura Ungar reported this story for 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 developing into any of the various cell types (such as blood cells, skin cells, etc.)

umbilical cord – n. : a long, narrow tube that connects an unborn baby to the mother’s placenta.

therapy – n. treatment of physical or mental illness

bioreactor – n. a device in which living organisms create useful substances

stress – n. physical force or pressure

neural – adj. pertaining to or involving a nerve or nervous system

withdraw – in. to have something as a source: to come from something

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