Space benefits, stem cells, and why we’re just getting started

Early September saw some good news in the space sector, but not of the usual sort that quickly goes viral. The University of California San Diego received a gift of $150M to fund the Sanford Stem Cell Institute. Their valuable work with stem cells already includes years of research in Earth orbit. Yet news like this easily gets lost in the fray among the announcements of new companies planning launchers or satellites, the big NASA rocket leaking, or some other rocket exploding. Add to this the videos, any engine firing is a must, and the time to take in what’s going on is over for the day. Move on, get back to work. Petri dishes have a hard time competing with fire and thunder.

Listen to this blog “Space benefits, stem cells, and why we’re just getting started”
Microscopy image of Human Neural Stem Cells cultured for 45 days. Credits: UCLA/Dr. Espinosa-Jeffrey

Let’s talk about context, why vs. how, and why we’re just getting started

For years after the Shuttle program ended over a decade ago, it was popular to reminisce about accomplishments. There was a lot of fire and thunder and 135 launches, with 306 men and 49 women who flew to space, and so on. Like a tour guide at Kennedy Space Center, the idea was to inform and to impress because who wouldn’t marvel at how fast a Shuttle engine could drain a pool. One presenter gave a warning before a particular slide, in a time before anyone would have said “first, a trigger warning.” “Some people” feel there is value, he said, in “merely having people in space.” So here was the number of days NASA crews spent going around in low Earth orbit in Shuttles. 8,337 person-days in space, to be exact.

The point was made, and the accomplishments were impressive. But how such a jumble of numbers mixes activity with achievements is not lost on an audience. We need context.

As NASA deals with hydrogen leaks again, people will remember that time decades ago when the Shuttle too was plagued with hydrogen leaks. I pulled the night shift at the launch pad as technicians changed out a leaking 4-inch hydrogen line connecting the tank to the orbiter. The whole team felt a sense of urgency and a common mission, to fix what’s broken and do it right, so we can launch again soon. This was one of those nights, not as common as they should have been, when it seemed everyone wore the same badge. It was two in the morning, and everyone was wide awake and determined to get the warp drive back up and running.

After beginning double-duties with advanced projects, eventually my full-time job, those years in the Shuttle program proved invaluable in revealing a picture that is still developing today. Transportation to space was important, of course, as a means to an end. No means, no end. Some advanced projects began with the end in mind, such as space based solar power, working backward to the means, routine, much more affordable transportation to and from space. The distinction was clear, why go to space, why live and work there? For the tremendous benefits we once had only an inkling of, but proving out with every visit.

Similarly, as NASA and our partners built the International Space Station, a facility in space, we could not forget this was infrastructure, a place of work. With no intention to take away from the immediate benefits of the means to travel to space, or the means to stay there, still, we could rightly tell anyone you haven’t seen anything yet. We’re just getting started.

Benefits, stem cells and treatments, and more

Also, this week we saw the Space Council emphasize the benefits of being in space. Addressing climate change, NASA will develop an Earth Information Center to equip decision-makers with the information they need to respond. Local areas (like Kennedy Space Center) already have Geographic Information Systems. It’s time we have one of these systems for the whole of Earth. There is none greater than keeping our home in working order, habitable, and safe when it comes to benefits. Pakistan one-third underwater is no longer a black-swan event, any more than record temperatures around the world, historical glacier melt, or wildfires across the west that are worse each season.

The National Space Council meeting, September 2022.

Right along, NASA Administrator Nelson talked about the benefits of stem cell research in space and NASA working with the makers of the cancer treatment Keytruda. There is an awful lot to learn about materials, proteins, and monoclonal antibodies, if we study them in space. There is a world of problems here on Earth held back by gravity but which, if resolved, promise, dare we say the C-word, cures. At least for the moment, the Petri dishes usually lost in the news were front and center. The Space Council members emphasized why we go to space and the value of performing research away from the effects of gravity.

We need no longer be held back…by gravity

To get away from gravity (mostly), we have the International Space Station, a capability that has hit its stride. Yet NASA knows the ISS won’t last forever, and more so, it’s not a commercial production facility ready to crank out in volume. The ISS is a research site. So, NASA is helping commercial space stations in the works. It is not a stretch to think that a principal benefit of commercial space stations won’t be serving a few astronauts here and there as a service, as research never ends, or lowering costs to NASA. Instead, the benefit will be in the products manufactured on these new stations that you or a family member might need one day. It may be an infusion to treat cancer or Alzheimer’s or making crystals that show us the exact structure of the next pandemic virus and how to attack it.

Excerpt from the Journal of Stem Cells Translational Medicine, “The effects of microgravity on differentiation and cell growth in stem cells and cancer stem cells,” by Daniela Grimm, Markus Wehland, Thomas J. Corydon, Peter Richter, Binod Prasad, Johann Bauer, Marcel Egli, Sascha Kopp, Michael Lebert, and Marcus Krüger

Space capabilities and the benefits these will make possible do not stand still any more than solar panels, medications, or the knowledge of our home planet Earth. It happens home, health and humankind are the best of reasons to take risks, explore, and learn along the way.

Wrapping up the night, now near morning, at the launch pad years ago, the team having installed the new hydrogen line, there’s a catwalk rarely seen along the back. Suspended forty feet above the deck, it was quiet enough to hear the waves coming in at the shore. The night sky was crystal clear, with more stars visible than usual, even with the brilliant lighting at the pad. We knew why we did what we did, as anyone in the current space transportation business, and soon the commercial space station business, does too.

Also see –

There is so much happening in the field of medical research in space. The following is a sampling only.

  • 2015 Microgravity protein crystallization. If a protein is of interest to a medical application, it helps to know what it looks like. You can’t fix what you can’t see. For this, you need “diffraction grade crystals,” a capability on Earth, but one that is more art than science. Earth orbit, however, offers an excellent way to make these crystals. “In an attempt to address this bottleneck, an international group of scientists has explored the use of a microgravity environment to crystallize macromolecules.”
  • 2016 Why are scientists shooting stem cells into space? Studies aboard the International Space Station probe astronaut health and regenerative medicine. This is one of the earliest pop-articles on stem cell research on the ISS, here for cardiac progenitor cells. “But he estimates it will take 100 million to 200 million such cells to treat a human, and they are difficult and time-consuming to grow. Based on earlier evidence that stem cells proliferate happily in microgravity, Zubair plans to test whether a trip to space will coax his MSC populations to expand. If so, his research will tackle an ever bigger question: Can sterile, clinical-grade cells be grown in the orbiting lab? And after their space odyssey, would they still be safe to inject into people?”
  • 2018 The NASA BioScience-4 mission to the ISS (SpaceX-16, SpaceX-21), including “two types of cells will be studied in this experiment – neural stem cells and oligodendrocyte progenitor cells.”
  • 2019 Improving Treatments with Tiny Crystals, where a “team of Merck researchers led an investigation, PCG-5, seeking to grow the therapeutic monoclonal antibody Keytruda® in highly ordered, uniform crystalline form.”
  • 2019 Published Results From Crystallization Experiments on the ISS Could Help Merck Improve Cancer Drug Delivery. “In recent years, increasing numbers of mAb therapeutics are being used to treat not just cancer but also cardiovascular, metabolic, and neurological diseases.” In the far term, rather than a port and an hours-long infusion for a patient with cancer, research in space into crystallization processes for biologic drugs, and concentrating the dose, could achieve a “subcutaneous injection at a local doctor’s office on a less frequent dosing schedule, improving quality of life for patients and caregivers.”
  • 2020 Not related to research in orbit, but …showing the importance of understanding protein structure in developing medical treatments, “How structural biologists revealed the new coronavirus’s structure so quickly.” “Uncovering the structures of proteins like these helps scientists develop small molecules, antibodies, and other therapeutics that can disrupt the proteins’ function.”
  • 2022 Not related to research in orbit, but…showing the importance of stem cells in potential cures,Biologic and Clinical Efficacy of LentiGlobin for Sickle Cell Disease.” Stem cells are removed from the patient, modified, and then put back. Rejection does not occur, as with “matching” from stem cell donors, and the cells do express themselves, persisting and propagating – not an easy genetic trick (see below). Painful crises requiring hospitalization and leading to cumulative organ damage and early death are avoided. Patients may go on to live their lives free of this crippling disease. Future research includes addressing “refined manufacturing to improve transduction efficiency, and higher cell doses to improve engraftment and polyclonal repopulation of the bone marrow.”
  • From 2010 Not related to research in orbit, butAllotopic expression of mitochondrial-encoded genes in mammals: achieved goal, undemonstrated mechanism or impossible task? Here, mitochondrial cells were modified with the goal of understanding mitochondrial disease. Unfortunately, the cells failed to “express”, and “there are currently no effective treatments for mitochondrial-DNA associated disorders.” That is, the cells, unlike in the case of the sickle cell research (see above), did not take off, grow, and manifest the modification as the intended fix. Curiously, mitochondria are of recent special interest in space as the root of many of the ailments astronauts experience appears to begin in mitochondria. The lengthy 2020 report, “Comprehensive Multi-omics Analysis Reveals Mitochondrial Stress as a Central Biological Hub for Spaceflight Impact,” summarizes – “Finally, our comprehensive pathway analyses identified how spaceflight impacts mitochondrial function at the genetic, protein, and metabolite levels of cellular, tissue, and organismal biology.” Might future research fuse in-space mitochondrial discovery with non-space research findings?

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