Stem cells were sent into space by the Sanford Stem Cell Institute at the University of California, San Diego

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Stem cells were sent into space by the Sanford Stem Cell Institute at the University of California, San Diego

After spending a year aboard the International Space Station (ISS), astronaut Scott Kelly underwent a series of tests upon his return to Earth that found abnormalities in his blood cells consistent with pre-leukemic conditions. Before, these kinds of cellular abnormalities have been seen in blood, but only after years of human aging had passed.

There is mounting evidence that the weightless environment of space can imitate and accelerate the aging process in human stem cells, especially those that are responsible for the production of blood cells. However, not only the knowledge of this process helpful for preserving the health of astronauts, but it also has the potential to teach us how to delay the consequences of aging here on Earth.

The Sanford Stem Cell Institute at the University of California, San Diego conducted the world’s first space launch of hematopoietic (blood) stem cells on November 22, 2022. As part of UC San Diego’s Integrated Space Stem Cell Orbital Research (ISSCOR) Center, which was founded with support from the JM Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, stem cells have been sent aboard the ISS for the third time.

According to Catriona Jamieson, MD, PhD, director of the Sanford Stem Cell Institute and Koman Family Presidential Endowed Chair in Cancer Research at UC San Diego School of Medicine, ISSCOR is teaching them a lot about how space and aging may affect stem cell biology. However, if they can’t reproduce the results, they don’t have a scientific advance.  The researchers sent stem cells into space for the third time, and they are keeping their fingers crossed that this will be a successful mission.

The researchers aim for this launch is to bring rigor and repeatability to these studies, said Jessica Pham, manager of the ISSCOR Center. They are utilizing gravity to generate gravitas.

Jamieson’s and his colleagues’ research has shown that stem cells age differently in different people; however, scientists are still trying to determine how much of this variation can be attributed to hardwired genetic factors and how much can be attributed to the unique microenvironment that exists within each person’s body.

For instance, research has shown that when the environment of the bone marrow gets inflamed, this can impose stress on blood stem cells that are in the process of growing and damage their DNA. This can eventually lead to pre-leukemic blood diseases.

It is increasingly clear that the way stem cells age depends on what they are exposed to, and the more the researchers understand this process, the more precisely they can intercept the development of cancer and turn back the clock on human aging. In other words, stem cells age differently depending on what they are exposed to.

Researchers at the Sanford Stem Cell Institute went to utilize space as a kind of “aging accelerator.” First, they are going to make sure that the weightless environment precisely simulates human aging, and then they are going to use that information to further deconstruct the aging process. Without having to rely on time-consuming and costly clinical studies tracking earthbound individuals as they age, the project will provide scientists and doctors with crucial information that will further their understanding of stem cell aging.

The trials mark the beginning of an expanding scientific activity in space, which, thanks to the regulated conditions and rapid speed, has the potential to make steps forward in a variety of subdisciplines of the health sciences. In further missions, researchers plan to investigate not just partial aspects of stem cell biology but also the aging process in several different types of tissues, including the liver and the brain.


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