In the first US/UK collaboration on space medicine, researchers from the University of Kingston will be conducting stem cell research in zero gravity. The £547,000 project is aimed at developing preventative measures against the effects of intense radiation in space, in preparation for NASA's manned mission to mars in 2020.
The UK researchers, Drs Colin McGuckin and Nico Forraz, met NASA officials at a San Francisco conference on stem cell biology. The NASA scientists were particularly interested in the British researcher's study of cancer caused by the Chernobyl nuclear accident. On earth we are protected from radiation by the atmosphere, but in space the strength of radiation is more similar to the effects of the Ukraine disaster in 1986. Commenting on the proposed research, Professor George Fraser, director of the Space Research Centre in Leicester, said 'the possibility of engineering a radiation tolerance to the human body would be very important because its one of the limiting features of space travel'.
Drs McGuckin and Forraz, of Kingston University's School of Life Sciences, will be travelling to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, with the next few months. Their research will use large magnets to produce a small field of zero gravity in which they will study cells from the umbilical cord, brain, eye and liver. In normal gravity, stem cells grow on a flat layer, but in zero gravity, they grow in three dimensions, as they would in the body. Their work will also look at other side effects of low gravity, such as weakened bones, and their findings could eventually be applicable to terrestrial medicine.
'NASA's zero gravity facilities can actually speed up the growth of liver cells and form a large tissue mass, which would then be transplanted into the human body. Depending on the individual, this could provide short or long-term benefits for patients with liver disease. Within the next 20 years, there is also the potential to grow nerve pathways to repair damaged spines or brain damage caused by Alzheimer's disease', said Dr McGuckin.
Any findings of the research will be tested in NASA's 2008 unmanned mission to Mars. Although no British spacecraft will be used, the UK government is backing the project with the Department of Trade and Industry pledging £40,000 to help fund the researchers.