On March 6, at 23.50, a re-supply mission took off from the Cape Canaveral base, in Florida, for the International Space Station (ISS), in orbit around Earth. On board there were also 250 test tubes from the University of Zurich, containing adult human stem cells, which should evolve into bone cells, cartilage and other organs during the month-long stay in the ISS.
The basic idea of the researchers from UZH Space Hub is that stem cells, finding themselves in low gravity conditions, are able to develop spontaneously, without the need for the supporting “structures” necessary on Earth, following a three-dimensional morphology, resulting in the formation of tissue that could be used not only for transplants and precision medicine, but also to help reduce the number of animal experiments.
The tests will take place in a special piece of equipment known as the CubeLab, designed by the US company Space Tango, which consists of a closed, sterile system (a kind of cubic box) in which the cells can grow and develop under the right temperature and humidity conditions. The Airbus consortium has also provided an innovative 3D-printing technique called Selective Laser Sintering (SSL), and made other contributions necessary for the launch of the project.
If these attempts are successful, in future missions it is planned to gradually switch from a small laboratory to a larger production scale, in order to generate abundant portions of tissue to be used in cartilage transplants, or to produce new liver cells for individual patients, or for other applications, reducing the risk of rejection to a minimum.
Furthermore, the tissue of a specific patient recreated in space may become a precious “testing ground” in the future for understanding if more complex therapies, especially in the field of oncology, will really be useful and more effective for the patient in question. In short, it could be possible to put together a truly customized treatment plan, with a high probability of success (avoiding the use, on the other hand, of therapies that are ineffective already from the offset).
In the near future the culture of biological tissue, according to various observers, could become common practice for the ISS and not only, both for research and commercial purposes. Contrary to widespread opinion – according to the researchers from Zurich – transportation into space is no longer as expensive as it used to be: “In a few decades”, says Professor Oliver Ullrich, head of the UZH Space Hub, “humankind will use the Low Earth Orbit (in which the ISS is found) as a routine place for research, development and production”.