If you suggested that one day, stem cells would have potential applications from creating spinach human hearts to curing aggressive baldness, you'd probably be labeled as a crazy person, like those Y2K doomsayers or Frasier fans.
While it seems these stem cell milestones get more improbable from clinical trial to clinical trial, this latest stem cell advancement is truly out of this world.
Stem cell researchers are blasting stem cells off to the International Space System in order to see if microgravity can encourage the cells to proliferate faster.
In other words, scientists are sending stem cells to space to see if they can increase the rate stem cells can multiply.
Rapidly development of stem cells is thought to be one of the final barriers impeding new stem cell treatments for stroke, and other health conditions. These potential therapeutics need hundreds of millions of stem cells to thrive; to date, there's no efficient or fast way to produce the vast quantities required.
Previous, unrelated research has pointed to microgravity as a possible conduit to encourage expedited multiplication. The International Space Station houses America's only national microgravity lab, meaning this clinical trial will be done in Earth's orbit.
The theory of stem cells' accelerated growth in simulated microgravity comes from Abba Zubair, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. He's the head of the space project - or the Microgravity Expanded Stem Cells Investigation - where his team is cultivating human stem cells on the space station to use in clinical trials back on Earth.
"Stem cells are inherently designed to remain at a constant number," Zubair explains. "We need to grow them faster, but without changing their characteristics."
Human stem cells are unique. They're 'blank slates', with no allegiance to any cell type in the body, until it's 'encouraged' to differentiate into a specific human cell type. They divide into this spectrum of cells to help the human body repair and rejuvenate throughout a lifetime. The entire body is predicated on stem cells in every organ, muscle, and bone, maintaining and repairing themselves through division and differentiation into specialized cells.
Harvesting stem cells has proven tricky; growing enough of them for effective treatments has been even more difficult. While scientists have been mildly successfully in growing certain types of stem cells, growing sufficient supplies for treatments is far too slow, often taking weeks.
In stem cell medicine, that's simply too late for some conditions.
Zubair's first priority in outer space is answering one key question: Do stem cells grow faster in space, and can we grow them in such a manner that they are safe to use in patients?
His team plans to analyze space-grown stem cells to better understand microgravity's effects on them. The long game is learning how to replicate the effects, creating a safe and reliable method to rapidly grow and multiply stem cells for medical conditions.
After diligent research, the stem cell team will move to phase two - employing the stem cells in clinical trials with human subjects.
Currently, Zubair is studying stem cell treatments for stroke patients, where he uses lab-grown cells. He hopes to compare his current research and lab cells to the space-grown variety in the same patients.
"What is unique about this investigation is that we are not only looking at the biology of the cells and how they grow, but focusing on application, how we can use them to treat patients," he says.
The space investigation should advance future studies and provide insight into producing large numbers of stem cells, which may treat stroke and other serious health conditions one day in the future.
And the quicker that happens, the sooner we can enjoy the full benefits of stem cell therapy.
The advantage of our stem cell treatments - including regenerative medicines and injection therapies - is they're not only tested and proven, but are located conveniently on planet Earth.
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|Tags: Stem Cell Research|