The University of Zurich has sent adult human stem cells to the International Space Station to explore the production of human tissue in weightlessness.
The International Space Station resupply mission Space X CRS-20 took off from Cape Canaveral with 250 test tubes containing adult human stem cells on board. These stem cells will develop into bone, cartilage and other organs during the month-long stay in space.
“We are using weightlessness as a tool,” explained research leader Dr Cora Thiel. “Physical forces such as gravity influence how stem cells differentiate and how the formation and regeneration of tissue is organised. We assume that due to the low gravity on board the ISS, newly formed cells organise themselves into three-dimensional tissues without an additional matrix or other auxiliary structures.”
The experiment will take place in a mobile mini-laboratory, the CubeLab module of the US company Space Tango. The module consists of a closed and sterile system, in which the stem cells can proliferate and differentiate at constant temperature.
If the test project is successful, it is planned to gradually switch from a small laboratory to a larger production scale. In the future, the innovative process could be used to generate tissue transplants such as cartilage or new liver cells in space from stem cells which are harvested from individual patients in a routine procedure. According to Professor Oliver Ullrich – another lead on the project – an additional application is emerging in precision medicine.
He said: “Artificially produced autologous human tissue could be used to determine which combination of drugs is the most suitable for the patient in question. In addition, human tissue and organ-like structures produced in space could help to reduce the number of animal experiments.”