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Stem Cells in Space

World-first study of patient-derived cells to study disease development in the absence of gravity

Alliance for Mankind
International Space Station, Outer Space Dr. Valentina Fossati
Dr. Andres Bratt-Leal

The National Stem Cell Foundation (NSCF) has connected bi-coastal research teams and partnered with the Exomedicine Institute and space flight company Space Tango to send cells from patients with primary progressive MS (PPMS) and Parkinson’s disease (PD) to the ISS for a unique 3-D study of neurodegeneration in the absence of gravity. This is the first time disease-specific cells from patients with PPMS and PD – or any disease – will be studied on the ISS to observe the cell-to-cell interactions of neurodegeneration and neuroinflammation when the gravitational forces affecting cells on Earth are removed. This is a promising and potentially significant step forward in our ability to understand the biological processes involved in these diseases.

The opportunity to observe uninhibited cell interaction and gene expression in PPMS and PD also has implications for the development of new cell and drug therapies for ALS, Alzheimer’s disease, rare childhood disorders and multiple other neurodegenerative diseases.

The project, a research collaboration between Dr. Valentina Fossati, Senior Principal Investigator at the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) Research Institute and Dr. Andres Bratt-Leal, formerly Director of Research & Development at the Summit for Stem Cell Foundation, now VP of Research & Development at Aspen Neuroscience in San Diego, will be the first long-term cell culture experiment conducted in microgravity using human patient-derived induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to study diseases as they develop in real time.  

Working across institutions and disciplines, the research teams will convert patient-specific iPSCs into different brain cell types and 3-D aggregates of these cells called organoids. The organoids will also incorporate microglia, the immune cells of the brain, using a protocol developed by NYSCF. Microglia play an important role in mediating inflammation by migrating towards damaged areas of the brain, and have recently been implicated in the development of PD, MS, and several other neurodegenerative diseases. These 3-D human brain models are making an unprecedented journey to the International Space Station to study the effects of microgravity on organoid assembly and microglia migration during neuroinflammation. The hardware engineering required to facilitate the transport and survival of the cells to the ISS is being led by space research partner Space Tango. A pilot launch to test the custom hardware will launch to the ISS this summer, with a full project launch to the ISS later this year. The research collaboration and ISS study are funded by the National Stem Cell Foundation.

Learn more about this research here.