Growing Organs in Space

Part of the 250 test tubes carrying human stem cells, ready for differentiation into organ-like tissue structures on board the International Space Station ISS. Credit: Julian Raatschen, Airbus

Outer space has always been an area of interest for all generations. With the advancements in technology, humans are discovering more and more of this vast universe and its potential. 

Researchers at the University of Zurich (UZH) are currently conducting research aimed at producing human tissue from adult stem cells. This sounds fairly simple except, all this is meant to take place in outer space. 

Launch of the International Space Station resupply mission Space X CRS-20 from Cape Canaveral, USA on March 6, 11:50 p.m. EST. Credit: NASA

On March 6th, 2020, 250 test tubes containing human adult stem cells were sent from the University of Zurich into space, aboard the International Space Station (ISS) SpaceX Cargo Resupply Mission. 

Professor Oliver Ullrich and Dr. Cora Thiel, research leaders at UZH, hope to use weightlessness as a tool to develop stem cells into organ-like structures or organoids during their time in space. Microgravity is believed to have an effect on cell differentiation, tissue formation, and regeneration. The researchers hope that the lack of gravity on the ISS will encourage the stem cells to grow into three-dimensional tissues compared to the flat, 2-D tissues that are formed in cultures on Earth.

Space Tango CubeLab onboard the International Space Station ISS. Credit: Space Tango

After induction of differentiation on the ground, the stem cells are to be cultured aboard the ISS on a mini-laboratory, a CubeLab module made by the US company Space Tango. It is hoped that the mobile mini-laboratory will be converted into a bigger production in the future. On their return, the samples will be investigated at the histological, cellular, molecular and functional levels.

The test tubes were launched with stem cells and are expected to return to Earth with organ-like tissue structures inside

Professor Oliver Ullrich

If successful, in the future this process will be able to generate human tissues and organs for transplant purposes and allow for drug testing to be done on human tissues. Thus, reducing the need for animal experiments. There will also be increased commercialization of space as the cultivation of human tissue could help maintain the health of crew members on future long-term exploration missions. 

It is still unclear as to what leads to the formation of three-dimensional tissue structures in space. However, research is still ongoing to study how cell biology and the gravitational forces interact to form different kinds of tissue in space and on Earth. According to Dr. Ullrich “In a few decades, humankind will use the low Earth orbit as a routine place for research, development, and production.”



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