A NASA ISS crew are growing the beginnings of new organs while orbiting 250 mile (400km) over Earth. The experiment is an attempt to grow human tissue by sending human stem cells into orbit and encouraging them to grow in space.
The stem cells will eventually develop into bone, cartilage and other organs.
The test tubes were launched with stem cells and are expected to return to Earth with organ-like tissue structures inside
If successful, the discoveries will eventually be used to grow organs for transplant.
The experiment uses “weightlessness as a tool”, according to Cara Thiel, one of the two researchers from the University of Zurich conducting the research.
The lack of gravity on board the International Space Station will be used to encourage the stem cells to grow into tissue in three dimensions, rather than the single-layer structures that form on Earth.
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The research is being conducted by ISS astronauts using a “mobile mini-laboratory” that arrived on a SpaceX rocket last week.
The experiment will last for a month, during which scientists will wait and see how the stem cells grow.
If successful, NASA intends to switch from a small laboratory to bigger production.
From there, the US-based space agency could use the process to generate tissue for transplants by taking cells from patients.
Another option is to generate organ-like material capable of being used to test drugs.
This could ensure it works for a specific patients or reducing the number of animals used in experiments.
On Earth, tissue grows in “monolayer” cultures: generating flat, two dimensional tissue.
But investigations both in space and Earth suggest cells in microgravity, “exhibit spatially unrestricted growth and assemble into complex 3D aggregates”, said Professor Ullrich, the experiment’s research leader.
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Previous research has involved simulated ad real experiments, mostly using tumour cells and placing real human stem cells into microgravity simulators.
However, the next stage of the research is key because “there is no alternative to the ISS”, Professor Ullrich says.
This is because 3D tissue formation of this kind requires several days or even weeks in microgravity.
After the month-long experiment, the scientists will get the samples back and expect to see successful formation of ”organoids”.
These are expected to be smaller, more simple versions of organs – inside the test tubes.
Professor Ullrich said: “The test tubes were launched with stem cells and are expected to return to Earth with organ-like tissue structures inside.”
Scientists are still not sure why the conditions of the International Space Station lead to the assembly of complex 3D tissue structures.
Professor Ullrich and other scientists are still continuing to research how the gravitational force and the “molecular machinery in the cell” interact to create new and different kinds of tissue on Earth and in space.
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