Stem Cell innovation at the International Space Station

April 18, 2022

Already pioneers in regenerative medicine, scientists at Cedars-Sinai are launching their expertise into space to see if they can elevate the next generation of stem cell and gene therapies by harnessing the near-zero gravity conditions of spaceflight.

The two-year mission, funded by a $2 million grant from NASA, will help investigators determine if the microgravity conditions in space can improve stem cell production. The lack of gravity may make it easier to produce large batches of stem cells more efficiently.

“Cedars-Sinai has already established a world-class biomanufacturing center here in Los Angeles, and now we want to leverage our specialized expertise to try to expand the production of stem cells in space,” said Clive Svendsen, PhD, executive director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute and co-principal investigator on the mission.

Microgravity has become of great interest to stem cell scientists due to unique properties it grants to biological tissues and processes that could potentially help mass-produce cells or other products in a way that is not possible to do on Earth.

“One of the major roadblocks in applying regenerative cell therapies on Earth is the lack of patient-specific cells capable of replacing damaged tissues and organs,” said co-principal investigator Arun Sharma, PhD, a stem cell biologist who leads a new laboratory affiliated with the Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, Smidt Heart Institute, and Department of Biomedical Sciences. “We are hoping to use the unique conditions of space to generate, expand and differentiate cells at a much larger scale than you can do on Earth.”

Cedars-Sinai will be partnering with Axiom Space of Houston to establish induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) production and differentiation methods that support in-space manufacturing of stem cells for a wide variety of tissues critical to developing future clinical therapies on Earth.

These specialized iPSCs can be reprogrammed to go back in time to a powerful state of “pluripotency” where they can turn into nearly any tissue of the human body and then be developed into tailored treatments for debilitating diseases.

The team will explore the effects microgravity has on the way the cells differentiate, or transform into other cell types, like brain and heart cells.

The work builds on preliminary research—also funded by NASA—where Svendsen and Dhruv Sareen, PhD, executive director of the Cedars-Sinai Biomanufacturing Center, are exploring the effects of microgravity on the growth of similar cells using automated systems in space that do not require astronaut time. They have a mission set for SpaceX CRS-25, with partner Space Tango, that will launch in June 2022.

Along with Svendsen, Sharma has worked previously with NASA and already helped send experiments to the International Space Station to understand how microgravity affects the heart on the cellular level. Sharma also recently led a study identifying key opportunities for using space-based technologies to enhance stem cell production.

“For the current mission, we are focusing on stem cell production, division, and differentiation where astronauts on the International Space Station will actually grow and differentiate the cells to see whether microgravity has any impact,” Sharma said. “The hope is that it will facilitate the manufacturing and differentiation of stem cells in a way that's better than on the ground, and perhaps also grant them characteristics that are not possible on Earth.”

Cedars Sinai release