Abba C. Zubair, M.D., Ph.D., medical and scientific director of the Cell Therapy Laboratory at Mayo Clinic in Florida has traveled far in his life, moving from Nigeria to America in pursuit of science. Dr. Zubair spoke recently at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, explaining his plan to send an experiment beyond all borders to the International Space Station, a strategy that may accelerate the growth of human tissues and organs which currently require a substantial amount of time to develop due to gravity.
The goal of Dr. Zubair's research — and regenerative medicine as a whole — is to boost the body's ability to heal itself. While many of us have the ability to recover from a cold or heal after an injury, the body has a limit to what it can do alone. For example, after a cut your skin heals within a few days. Other organs do not repair themselves as readily. But cells in the body once thought to be no longer able to divide (terminally differentiated) have been shown to be able to remodel and possess some ability to self-heal. Dr. Zubair and teams in the Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine are studying how to enhance these self-healing processes.
Dr. Zubair explains that cells are like people and they behave differently depending on the environment. Since these cells are so temperamental and because of the amount of time it takes to differentiate the cells, it has become challenging for scientists to grow them effectively in the lab. This presents a real hurdle considering just how many stem cells are needed for an effective therapy —anywhere from 200 to 500 million.
Dr. Zubair believes that improving the environment in which stem cells are grown will allow their production to meet the required numbers for effective therapies. One consistent impediment to a cell's growth is gravity and allowing cells to grow in a lower gravitational environment, such as space, may stimulate cell growth. This is the focus of Dr. Zubair's experiment slated for February, 2016, which will launch stem cells into space to be grown on the International Space Station.
The study has endured several challenges, the first of which was the question of what will the cells feed on while in low gravity? Astronauts on the space station won’t be able to use the normal nutrient-rich liquid as it will simply float away. The answer came from a collaboration between Mayo Clinic and BioServe, a subsidiary of the University of Colorado-Boulder, which developed a new type of medium called a BioCell Cassette. Another challenge facing the study is the fickle nature of space travel, which has forced the launch of the stem cells to be delayed once already.
Dr. Zubair remains optimistic, having performed test flights using a specially designed rig called the RED-4U capsule, created by Terminal Velocity Aerospace (TVA). These flights and Dr. Zubair's work were featured on a recent article for space.com.
Dr. Zubair is hopeful. His laboratory has tested the hardware and everything is ready for flight. The long-term goal, he explains, if indeed the cells will benefit from the different environment, is the construction of bioreactors, which will operate in Earth's orbit, growing stem cells for ready use.