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Mar 27, 2017 11:30 AM EDT

Researchers Look Up To Outer Space As Womb For Stem Cells

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During the World Stem Cell Summit, held last Dec. 6-9, 2016, experts described their forays into stem cell research in microgravity. Flying can mess up anyone's sense of direction, and it also revealed that it could do wonderful things with stem cells.

Though it is possible to recreate weightlessness on Earth, the best thing would be to send stem cells 250 miles up on the International Space Station (ISS). Cell biologist Arun Sharma explained at the summit how he and his team at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, want to find out what microgravity does to the heart muscle in detail using heart muscles cultured from stem cells. Upon return to Earth, Sharma says that from preliminary observations, the cells took on a slightly irregular rhythm while in space, but returned to normal once back on Earth.

A special delivery was made into space this week that is hoped to lead to finding revolutionary ways to cure diseases. Unmanned satellite wombs were shot into space orbit and then retrieve from them batches of stem cells that can be used to treat patients. No matter what the outcome, the experiment still has potential to advance knowledge of these unique cells.

Dr. Abba Zubair, a stem cell researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, received stem cells that have been grown at the ISS. The cells are then to be compared to the cells grown in a lab here on Earth. Accordingly, the culture grown in near-zero gravity, about 250 miles above the Earth, resulted in healthier cells than one grown in a terrestrial lab. Additionally, microgravity, which resembles the weightless like buoyancy of a womb, is the best environment for stem cell culture, Salon reported.

Dr. Zubair reveals that stem cells are finicky. According to him, terrestrial lab-grown samples develop imperfections. He says it can take up to a month to grow roughly 200,000 cells needed to treat one patient alone, he suspects gravity to be a culprit in the imperfections.

Earlier evidence suggests that stem cells proliferate happily in microgravity, which is why scientists are sending more to the ISS to find out if it is conclusive that stem cells proliferate at a faster rate in microgravity without suffering any side effects. Previous research suggests that microgravity could help producing quantities needed to be used in therapy.

Growing stem cells here on Earth requires weeks, and to grow enough has proven to be challenging. The sad part is that even if the sufficient amount is grown at high quality, it might be too late for the patient for the treatment to be administered.

As such, sending stem cells to the ISS has two objectives, 1] if they indeed grow faster in space; 2] if they can be grown in a manner that is safe to be used in patients; the sooner that happens, the better for those who could benefit from stem cell therapies.

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