On February 19, the latest rocket launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, included a payload of several samples of donated adult stem cells from a research laboratory at Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus. The launch by SpaceX, an American aerospace manufacturer and space transport services company, is part of NASA’s commercial resupply missions to the International Space Station.
The biological cells come from the laboratory of Abba Zubair, M.D., Ph.D., who specializes in Transfusion Medicine and Regenerative Medicine. Dr. Zubair is leading regenerative medicine research to determine if healthy mesenchymal and hematopoietic stem cells, derived from the body’s bone marrow, can be mass-produced in the low-gravity environment of outer space. If the stem cells maintain their properties as they divide copiously in microgravity, they may be usable in the treatment of stroke.
Studies conducted in microgravity simulators on Earth (specifically, tanks of rotating fluid), have shown stem cells can overcome their highly restricted expansion in a buoyant environment. It’s not known why microgravity affects cell division, Dr. Zubair says, but some researchers have speculated the conditions might be similar to the floating environment of developing cells in the body. Of particular significance to Dr. Zubair is how the cells hold up in space. On the International Space Station, experiments will provide information about gene expression in the expanded cells, real-time analysis of the cell cycle, and details about molecular changes that occur. Frozen cells will undergo further testing when they return to Earth, to determine whether microgravity produces stem cells that are functional and safe to treat the swelling and inflammation that occur in stroke.
“Stem cells are known to reduce inflammation,” he explains. “We’ve shown that an infusion of stem cells at the site of stroke improves the inflammation and also secretes factors for the regeneration of neurons and blood vessels.” A problem in the development of stem cell therapy is that as many as 200 million cells are needed to treat a human being, and expanding vast numbers of stem cells on Earth can take weeks. “We may discover proteins or compounds that are produced that we can synthesize on Earth to encourage stem cell growth without having to go to microgravity,” Dr. Zubair says.
Four years ago, under the auspices of the Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine, Dr. Zubair applied for research proposals that involved medicine and outer space. His mother had died of stroke in 1997, and he had been thinking about stem cells as a treatment for stroke-related brain injury.
Collaborating with Mayo Clinic neurologists James Meschia, M.D., and William D. Freeman, M.D., he studied mouse models of stroke. With funding from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, a nonprofit organization, he hopes to find that, in space, stem cells can be reproduced in large, safe quantities, providing new opportunities for patients. Experiments on the expanded stem cells will continue once they return to Earth.
“We’ll study them to make sure they’re normal, functional and safe for patients with stroke,” Dr. Zubair says. “My work in regenerative medicine has always been intentionally translational — not just to study what the cells do and what can be done with them but to make a difference for patients. That’s what makes our project unique.”
“At Mayo Clinic, research drives everything we do for patients,” says Gianrico Farrugia, M.D., vice president, Mayo Clinic. “This space cargo carries important material for research that could hold the key for developing future treatments for stroke — a debilitating health issue. Research such as this accelerates scientific discoveries into breakthrough therapies and critical advances in patient care.”
For the launch, Mayo Clinic is collaborating with the Center for Applied Space Technology (CAST) in Cape Canaveral, and BioServe Space Technologies in Boulder, Colorado. CAST supported Dr. Zubair's research during proposal development and served as an interface between the research team and various space hardware agencies. BioServe provided space flight hardware, on orbit research protocol and scheduling interface.