Disclosures: Maher and the authors of the Biomaterials paper report no relevant financial disclosures.
July 13, 2021
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Cardiac cells can be grown in space

Disclosures: Maher and the authors of the Biomaterials paper report no relevant financial disclosures.
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Beating cardiomyocytes were successfully grown from stem cells in space, which could have future implications for cardiac research.

NASA astronauts conducted an experiment aboard the SpaceX-20 mission to the International Space Station. The experiment was designed by researchers from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University to determine what the effects of zero gravity conditions might be on stem cells that could grow into cardiac cells. The results were published in Biomaterials.

Stem cells (left) grew into cardiac stem cells (center) and then cardiac cells (right) during the SpaceX-20 mission to the International Space Station. Source: Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Reprinted with permission.

Kevin O. Maher, MD, director of the cardiac ICU at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, told Healio that the idea for the experiment in space came out of work performed in the laboratory of Chunhui Xu, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine.

“Dr. Xu is an expert in the field of stem cells (specifically induced pluripotent stem cells) and demonstrated improved cell growth using simulated microgravity in her lab,” he said. “The idea that zero gravity would result in marked change in growth conditions required conditions that cannot occur on Earth. The International Space Station provides this unique environment to conduct experiments without gravity. We obtained a grant from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space that supported this effort.”

22 days in space

The experiment was conducted in a carbon dioxide-independent medium that can support cell growth and differentiation without use of a CO2 incubator, according to the Biomaterials paper. The cells were incubated for 22 days on the space station and then returned to Earth.

“The expert work by NASA astronaut Jessica Meir, PhD, was key to the success of the project,” Maher told Healio. “Following 22 days of culture in space, our stem cells were jettisoned from the space station, landed in the Pacific Ocean, retrieved and then FedEx’d to Atlanta. We were delighted to find the cells to still be alive and beating after quite a trip, around the world multiple times.”

The most important implications of the experiment are “that gravity impacts cell growth and differentiation, and specific genes are turned on and off based on presence or absence of gravity that impact cell growth,” Maher told Healio. “This provides clues as to how cell growth can be improved on Earth. For any therapeutic application of stem cells, a large number of highly purified cells are needed (in the millions of cells). This type of knowledge about cell growth will help contribute to the body of knowledge necessary to provide novel therapeutic applications of stem cells.”

Future research

Next, researchers will work to determine which genes and proteins were upregulated in space, which will offer clues as to why the cells were able to grow the way they did, Maher said in an interview.

“There is a lot of additional research that is required to understand the changes that occurred in space,” he said. “Applications to clinical practice will likely be several years away. Work to improve cell growth on Earth using the findings from space will be our focus.”

For more information:

Kevin O. Maher, MD, can be reached at Sibley Heart Center Cardiology, 1405 Clifton Road NE, Atlanta, GA 30322.