Spaceflights are not as fun as they seem to be. Adverse effects of being in zero gravity for long include muscular dystrophy, osteopenia, reduced RBC production and a weakened immune system For long, these effects were credited to increased exposure to radiation and drastically different micro-environment. Recent molecular evidence suggests a more basic cause – differential expression of stem cells.
Growing stem cells in space
Stem cells get differentiated in a radically different manner in space to when compared to that on Earth. 21-year old Elizabeth Blaber and team used a NASA-developed rotating vessel to grow stem cells in microgravity. 64% of the proteins expressed in the embryonic stem cells under the influence of microgravity were absent in the control ones. Most of these proteins were involved in calcium regulation (and maybe hence the muscular dystrophy, osteopenia etc). Researchers from Mayo Clinic are planning to send a laboratory to grow stem cells on the International Space Station.
Here is a video by Reuters, highlighting the Mayo Clinic’s efforts.
Changes in the cells in microgravity are similar to those inflicted by wounds or infections. Stem cells grown in space would shed light on mechanisms that would lead to therapies for a plethora of diseases. Also, studies have shown that stem cells grow faster in microgravity. Thus, growing stem cells in space would be a viable supply of stem cells which would be used to grow organs using 3d-printed scaffolds.