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Stem cells in space

4 March 2013
Appeared in BioNews 695

Mouse embryonic stem cells are being transported to the International Space Station (ISS) to investigate the impact of long-term space flight on human health.

The cryopreserved cells will stay on board the ISS for three years. The intention is then to return the cells to earth and see if the stay on the ISS has affected their DNA. Scientists hope to produce live mice by injecting the stem cells into embryos which will be then implanted into female mice. The affects of time in space can then be studied down through several generations and may also provide insight into what might happen in humans.

The project is led by Professor Takashi Morita of Osaka City University in Japan who plans to build on previous studies which have found astronauts and animals returning from space have damage to their immune or reproductive systems. It is thought this is caused by exposure to low gravity and space radiation. Understanding what is happening at the cellular level may aid development of new drugs to combat this.

The recent announcement of a planned mission to Mars in 2018 has given the project greater impetus. The journey to and from Mars would take 501 days and there is concern that prolonged exposure to space radiation may cause infertility or an increased susceptibility to cancer.

Dr Julie Robinson, chief scientist for NASA's ISS program, suggests that studies of cells in space may also lead to better therapies on earth. She said previous studies have shown that low gravity can prevent stem cells maturing into different cell types.

Professor Louis Yuge of Hiroshima University, Japan is about to start a clinical trial to see whether bone and muscle stem cells grown in low gravity environments are able to treat osteoarthritis, reports the New Scientist. Slowing down the time it takes for stem cells to mature could give them more time to move to the wounded area and turn into the required tissue.

Since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, the commercial firm SpaceX has been responsible for transporting supplies to and from the ISS. NASA has previously sent embryonic stem cells into space in 2010 to study the effects of space travel on muscle and bone.

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