Scientists aim to grow billions of stem cells aboard the International Space Station

This is the latest effort to overcome one of the key hurdles for widespread stem cell therapies.
Chris Young
International Space Station Orbiting Earth. 3D Illustration.3DSculptor/iStock

Scientists from Cedars-Sinai Medical in Los Angeles are investigating how to grow large batches of a specific type of stem cell.

Their mission has taken them orbital — to the International Space Station — and it could help unlock a whole host of stem cell therapies to combat deadly diseases.

One of the researchers, Dhruv Sareen, even donated his own stem cells for the experiment, a press statement reveals. If all goes to plan, the scientists hope to eventually grow billions of stem cells in space.

Stem cell growth in space

Stem cells can be used to generate nearly any type of cell in the body. Due to their impressive adaptability, they have great potential as a key tool in developing a wide array of treatments for diseases, including Parkinson's and heart disease.

Sareen's cells arrived aboard a SpaceX resupply mission — the SpX-25 dragon cargo mission — to the ISS over the weekend. "I don't think I would be able to pay whatever it costs now" to travel to space as a tourist, Sareen said. "At least a part of me in cells can go up!"

Several stem cell experiments have been conducted aboard the ISS in the past, as the microgravity conditions aboard the orbital space station provide a wildly different environment in which to investigate new methods and applications. Though most stem cell therapies are still some way off from coming to consumers, space could help overcome one of the main logistical hurdles when it comes to mass production.

A stem cell rideshare mission to space

In the future, stem cell therapy patients could require billions of cells depending on their treatment. Earth's gravity makes it difficult to grow the vast quantities of stem cells needed for therapies, so that's where the ISS comes in. "With current technology right now, even if the FDA instantly approved any of these therapies, we don't have the capacity to manufacture," Jeffrey Millman, a biomedical engineering expert at Washington University in St. Louis, explained.

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This is because, on Earth, large bioreactors are required to grow stem cells. The cells need to be stirred vigorously, so they don't clump together or fall to the bottom of the tank. However, the stirring itself can damage the cells. In microgravity, there's no force on the cells so that they can grow via a different method.

The Cedars-Sinai team sent up a shoebox-sized container holding pluripotent stem cells for their NASA-funded experiment. It contains pumps and chemical solutions required to keep the stem cells alive for four weeks. The same experiment will be carried out on Earth for comparison. In roughly five weeks, the box in space will be returned to Earth in the same SpaceX capsule it was carried up on. The rideshare mission will allow the scientists to directly evaluate the results in space and on Earth within a short timeframe. This will provide valuable new data that could help unlock a promising new field of medical research.