SpaceX‘s 20th and last resupply expedition to the International Space Station (ISS) under the current contract with NASA, took place on Friday. One of the new series of science experiments carried to the orbiting lab was small heart cells, as their potential to help people suffering from heart diseases is growing.
The mission launched on Friday night at 11:50 p.m. ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and it comprised supplies, various experiments, and materials for ongoing research. The Dragon spacecraft also transported the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Bartolomeo, an exterior commercial research platform.
Cells That Treat Heart Diseases
Among the payloads were two different experiments on cardiomyocytes, or beating heart cells, developed from pluripotent stem cells. Pluripotent stem cells are excellent because they can be transformed into multiple cell types – in this case, they could end up being healthy heart cells for a patient suffering from heart disease.
The results of the investigations could be used to develop numerous healthy heart cells for children and adults with various heart diseases. They could also be utilized to understand heart health and the aging pattern in a much larger framework. The scientists for one of the experiments believe their analysis could even help astronomers lower the risks they experience throughout a long-term spaceflight, such as reduced heart function and irregular heartbeat.
“Scientists already know that humans exposed to space experience changes similar to accelerated aging, so we hope the results can help us better understand and someday counteract the aging process,” said Deok-Ho Kim, a primary scientist for one of the experiments, and associate professor of biomedical engineering and medicine at Johns Hopkins University.
For the following months, the heart cells will be studied at the space lab before returning to Earth.
Cells Grow Without Gravity
Chunhui Xu, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine, first found that stem cells grow at an accelerated pace in space by simulating the lack of gravity on Earth.
According to Xu, stem cell therapies to mend harmed heart cells need at least one billion cells for each patient, but they take a lot of time to develop on Earth. When her experiment utilizing simulated microgravity on Earth suggested promising moves toward a quick and safe process of generating cardiomyocytes, Xu realized that space was the ideal proving ground.
Her experiment was selected to be transported to the space station, and she and her colleagues hope they can confirm their observation performed on Earth and also find new insights.
After the cells get thawed, cell cultures will develop for 21 days in the Multi-Use Variable-Gravity Platform experiment module on the orbiting lab. After they return to Earth, researchers in California will prepare them and have them transported back to Emory in Atlanta so experts can analyze them.
The Cells Have to be of High Quality
In the meantime, during the experiment taking place in space, a control group of cells will be laid in a centrifuge in an altered gravity environment on Earth.
“We’ve worked together for years to bring basic and clinical science together,” said Dr. Kevin Maher, director of the cardiac intensive care unit at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Heart Center and professor of pediatrics at Emory University, who is also one of the researchers working with Xu on the experiment.
There is a high request on the cells themselves, as they have to be pure and high quality. Residual stem cells that cannot transform into heart cells can trigger tumors, as per earlier research led by Xu. More mature cells have a more promising chance of becoming pure heart cells.
While conducting her ground-based experiment in which she simulated a lack of gravity, Xu discovered that the cells were more mature and even showed survival genes that could secure cell survival. Overall, these causes would enable cells to link with the heart tissue better and produce fewer issues.
The effects of their research could help create a more effective and cost-efficient method of developing the heart cells on Earth for those in need. Considering that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States – and not only – the cells have a huge potential to treat children and adults.