Space Could be Ideal Place for Stem Cell Production

Astronaut Raja Chari sequences DNA from bacteria samples to understand the microbial environment on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The lack of gravity in outer space could be the key to the efficient production of large quantities of stem cells. Scientists at Cedars-Sinai have found that the microgravity environment in space stations can potentially aid life-saving advances on Earth by facilitating the rapid mass production of stem cells.

A new paper in Stem Cell Reports outlines key opportunities discussed at a space biomanufacturing symposium to expand the manufacture of stem cells in space.

With new rocket technology, the cost of access to space has plummeted, opening up new opportunities for research and industry, as well as spaceflight by private citizens. Biomanufacturing of therapeutic and research biomaterials can be more productive in microgravity conditions.

“We are finding that spaceflight and microgravity is a desirable place for biomanufacturing because it confers a number of very special properties to biological tissues and biological processes that can help mass produce cells or other products in a way that you wouldn’t be able to do on Earth,” said stem cell biologist Arun Sharma, PhD, head of a new Cedars-Sinai research laboratory.

“The last two decades have seen remarkable advances in regenerative medicine and exponential advancement in space technologies enabling new opportunities to access and commercialise space,” he said.

Attendees at the virtual space symposium in December identified more than 50 potential commercial opportunities for conducting biomanufacturing work in space, according to the Cedars-Sinai paper. The most promising fell into three categories: Disease modelling, biofabrication, and stem-cell-derived products.

Scientists use disease modelling, to study diseases and possible treatments by replicating full-function structures – whether using stem cells, organoids or other tissues.

Decades of spaceflight experience has shown that when the body is exposed to low-gravity conditions for extended periods of time, it experiences accelerated bone loss and ageing. By developing disease models based on this accelerated ageing process, research scientists can better understand the mechanisms of the ageing process and disease progression.

“Not only can this work help astronauts, but it can also lead to us manufacturing bone constructs or skeletal muscle constructs that could be applied to diseases like osteoporosis and other forms of accelerated bone ageing and muscle wasting that people experience on Earth,” explained Dr Sharma.

Biofabrication, another major topic of discussion at the symposium, produces materials like tissues and organs with 3D printing a core technology.

A major issue with biofabrication on Earth involves gravity-induced density, which makes it hard for cells to expand and grow. This requires the use of scaffolding structures, but it generally cannot support the small, complex shapes found in vascular and lymphatic pathways. With the lack of gravity in space, scientists are hopeful that they can use 3D printing to print unique shapes and products, like organoids or cardiac tissues, in a way that can’t be replicated on Earth. This technology is being tested on the International Space Station.

The third category has to do with the production of stem cells and understanding how some of their fundamental properties are influenced by microgravity. Some of these properties include potency, or the ability of a stem cell to renew itself, and differentiation, the ability for stem cells to turn into other cell types.

Understanding some of the effects of spaceflight on stem cells can potentially lead to better ways to manufacture large numbers of cells in the absence of gravity. In coming months, Cedars-Sinai scientists will send stem cells into space to test whether it is possible to produce large batches in a low gravity environment.

“While we are still in the exploratory phase of some of this research, this is no longer in the realm of science fiction,” Dr Sharma said. “Within the next five years we may see a scenario where we find cells or tissues that can be made in a way that is simply not possible here on Earth. And I think that’s extremely exciting.”

Source: Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

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