Stem-cell research aboard International Space Station could lead to new cancer therapies

Kaunas research[Associate Professor Roland Kaunas (left) is researching non-embryonic stem cells mixed with bone tumor cells in microgravity.]

COLLEGE STATION, Texas, Dec. 17, 2013 – Stem-cell research scheduled to take place aboard the International Space Station could lead to new cancer therapies, says a researcher from Texas A&M University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering who is part of a team preparing the cell culture for space travel.

The research, by Roland Kaunas, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, will provide a new method to study the impact of tumor cells on stem-cell differentiation into bone.

Stem cells are cells that have not yet become specialized in their functions. They display a remarkable ability to give rise to a spectrum of cell types and ensure life-long tissue rejuvenation and regeneration.

Bone tumors, Kaunas explains, degenerate bone through their ability to inhibit bone stem cell function. However, stem cells behave differently in the absence of gravity. For example, stem cells can generate tissue-like structures that cannot be replicated on Earth, he notes. This key aspect will allow for the development of a system that enables researchers to identify potential molecular targets for drugs that inhibit the effects of tumor cells and hence reverse the damage these tumors cause in bone, Kaunas says.

Kaunas’ research, which is being sponsored by NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), was one of two stem-cell investigations highlighted at the World Stem Cell Summit in San Diego.

NASA is interested in space-based cell research because it is seeking ways to combat the negative health effects astronauts face in microgravity, including bone loss and muscle atrophy, stated NASA representatives in a news release issued by NASA. Mitigation techniques are necessary to allow humans to push the boundaries of space exploration far into the solar system. This knowledge, the release reads, could help people on Earth, particularly the elderly, who are afflicted with similar conditions.

NASA selected CASIS to maximize use of the International Space Station's U.S. National Laboratory through 2020. CASIS is dedicated to supporting and accelerating innovations and new discoveries that will enhance the health and wellbeing of people and our planet.

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