How sending cells to space could offer insights into disease on Earth

Researchers aim to improve understanding of conditions such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's

The International Space Station. Understanding how space travel affects people is becoming more important now that more are going to space. Photo: Nasa
Powered by automated translation

The Falcon 9 rocket that blasted off for the International Space Station on Thursday is carrying much more than the four astronauts on board.

The payload of the SpaceX craft, launched from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, includes material for experiments that could improve understanding of conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

Small brain models derived from stem cells, some from patients with the diseases under study, are being taken on to the ISS for the two week mission.

The New York Stem Cell Foundation is closely involved and this week’s Axiom 3 mission represents the fourth launch of its cell models to the ISS.

“Findings of microgravity experiments could help lead to new therapeutics for treating neurodegenerative diseases on Earth,” said Dr Scott Noggle, senior vice president for research at NYSCF.

This week’s mission is also notable because one of those taking part, Alper Gezeravci, is Turkey’s first astronaut.

The 3D brain models are tiny clusters of nerve cells that have been created in the laboratory from cells taken from adults, some of whom have Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis.

They have been reprogrammed so that they behave like stem cells, which can turn into any specialised type of cell.

Carrying out research – whether in a normal laboratory or in microgravity – with cells taken from patients with particular conditions helps scientists to look into the genetic factors related to the diseases.

Learning about diseases

“This allows us to replay a disease process over and over under different conditions to help discover the rules for how genetic factors increase our risk of disease,” Dr Noggle said.

Microgravity provides “unique stresses to brain and immune cells” and offers researchers, Dr Noggle said, a different perspective on disease, including what triggers it. It may also give a better understanding of how different cells in the brain interact in the disease process.

The experimental set-up that can be created through microgravity would, Dr Noggle said, “be difficult to accomplish on Earth”.

“In particular, we are curious about the behaviour of microglia, or the immune cells of the brain,” he added.

“They dynamically change shape when sensing their local environment and reacting to the disease state, and we believe that microgravity might alter this process.

“So, microgravity serves as a unique circumstance in which to tease apart healthy and diseased behaviours in microglia, pointing us toward new treatment targets.”

NYSCF scientists including Dr Noggle, plus researchers from other organisations including the National Stem Cell Foundation, last year published findings from a study on brain models that had been on the ISS for 30 days.

For the research, cells were donated by four people, one of whom had primary progressive multiple sclerosis, another of whom had Parkinson’s disease and two of whom had no known disease.

Cell proliferation or multiplication was lower in the samples cultured in the ISS compared to those cultured on Earth, and the nerve cells aged faster in space.

In their paper, released in August last year and based on a mission that ran from December 2019 to January 2020, the researchers said that it was important to carry out further similar studies to see if the effects of microgravity would be replicated.

As well as potentially leading to a better understanding of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer’s, the research could provide insights into how spending time in space affects people.

Previous research has indicated that microgravity may cause shifts in the fluids within the skull and alter brain matter itself.

“Such studies may ultimately aid in developing countermeasures for the effects of microgravity on the nervous systems of astronauts during space exploration,” the scientists wrote in their paper.

Understanding how space travel affects people is becoming more important now that more are going to space, Dr Noggle said.

“When astronauts return to Earth, they have demonstrated changes in their biology,” he said. “We are just now delving into the full effects of microgravity and space flight on human health, and studying stem cells in space can help.”

Updated: January 20, 2024, 6:54 AM