Stem cells blast into space: Jeanne Loring on the big launch & project specs

NASA stem cells in space project patch
The official SpaceX CRS-19 mission patch. Photo Credit Jeanne Loring.
Jeanne Loring at NASA to watch her stem cells go into space.
Jeanne Loring at NASA to watch the team’s stem cells go into space.

By Jeanne Loring

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 blast off!

It’s good to get out of the lab occasionally to get a different perspective.   Last Thursday, December 5, I got a very different perspective, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where I got to watch the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft be launched by a Falcon 9 rocket.

I was there because two years ago my research team was offered the opportunity to design an experiment for the International Space Station (ISS).  The idea and the funding for the project came from the National Stem Cell Foundation (NSCF), headed by Paula Grisanti, which was joined by the Summit for Stem Cell Foundation led by Jenifer Raub.

All I had to do was say “yes”.

We collaborated with the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) and Space Tango, a company that guides and facilitates experiments for flights on the ISS.  Last year when my whole lab moved to our new company, Aspen Neuroscience, the project moved with us.

Our key resource was iPSCs, and envisioning what cells would do without gravity, the stem cell scientists in my lab and in New York decided that aggregating differentiating iPSCs into spheres, often called organoids, made sense; the spheres would float in microgravity.  Because of our specific expertise, we decided that we would study neuroinflammation, a common factor in many neurological diseases.

NASA stem cells in space project patch
The official SpaceX CRS-19 mission patch. Photo Credit Jeanne Loring.

We made dopamine neuron organoids from iPSCs from a person with Parkinson’s disease, and cortical neuron organoids from a person with multiple sclerosis.  We added microglia derived from the same iPSCs to the organoids.  Microglia are a major component of the brain’s immune system; they are activated in response to insult to the brain, and actively clean up debris from dying neurons and ineffective synapses.  They protect the brain, but can also contribute to the damage if they are too active.

The organoids will be in space for a month.  We expect that the conditions on the ISS will exacerbate inflammation, but we could easily be wrong.  We can’t predict the result because this is the first time that an experiment anything like this has been done.

This is a team effort. Andres Bratt-Leal and Jason Stein from Aspen had to go home before the launch.  But Paula Grisanti, CEO of NSCF, Valentina Fossati and Scott Noggle from NYSCF, and Jana Stoudemire and Twyman Clemens from Space Tango, were there.

If you want to relive the launch, check out this video below.

The neurons arrived at the ISS Sunday morning (Dec. 8) when the Dragon module was plucked out of space by the extendable arm sometimes used to capture satellites.  They are now traveling 260 miles above the earth’s surface at 17,500 miles per hour.  I look forward to them coming back to us in January, when they will splash down in the Pacific. I wish them well.

6 Comments

  1. Stemcell in sssssSSSSPAAAAAAAACCCEEEeeeeee….

    Congratulations! It is interesting research that will open new avenues of understanding (both terrestrial and interstellar)

    • Dear Anonymous,
      It is anything but! I’m not sure of who funded exactly what, but this kind of research is vital to understanding human development, and the future of space travel. Its not just for pure scientific curiosity. It has vast commercial applications as well. How does cell biology work in space? Can humans travel safely to Mars? Would a human space colony be feasible? Can humans reproduce in space? As many governments and corporations look to space as an economic driver, work like this is incredibly vital. I’m curious to know if you’ve considered any of this, or what your motivation to not be excited is…?

  2. Also to Anonymous. This was paid for by a philanthropic organization, National Stem Cell Foundation- none of your tax dollars were used.

  3. Many tax dollars have gone into, and continue to support, the launch vehicle and most everything used in the ship’s launch. No private corporation or non-profit could have performed this mission alone. Decades of tax dollars support this mission, and this particular project. Without tax dollars, long term, expensive, and innovative projects don’t occur. The effects of microgravity, and related effects in tensegrity, on basic biological processes are manyfold; spaceflight is associated with changes in the brain and eye (Kramer LA et al, 2012), and pressure effects alone, for example, have been found to revert single cells from a cancer phenotype to a normal adult phenotype (Ricca BL et al, 2018). Unshackling ourselves from the state of constant gravitational forces here on Earth will allow us to better understand basic biological processes, and may lead to the development of new therapeutics through the use of the new innovation platform – constant microgravity in space.

  4. Thank you, Greg. I should have said that the biological experiment didn’t use tax dollars. There are multiple experiments sent up at each resupply mission, so ours was one of many. We just had a slot in the experimental module.
    I’m pleased that we can start figuring out the effects of long-term microgravity and increased radiation on humans. The most exciting aspect to me is that we really don’t know what the results will be…it’s the best experience for an experimental biologist!

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