Allen Institute takes part in groundbreaking health research on International Space Station

SEATTLE — From Seattle to the International Space Station, the Allen Institute based here in the Pacific Northwest is headed into orbit. The Institute is not sending people into space, but human cells that are playing a part in research that could ultimately save lives.

The Institute had hoped to watch the launch this past Monday, May 8, but that launch was scrubbed. KIRO 7 has learned a new launch date is set for May 21.

NASA and Axiom Space — a space technology, travel, and rocket science firm — will launch a rocket to the International Space Station carrying stem cells from the Allen Institute for Cell Science.

Researchers will see how the cells react, grow and develop in space.

The International Space Station National Lab issued a release about the research effort involving the Allen Institute Cells. According to the lab, age-related conditions such as stroke, cancer, dementia, and other neurodegenerative diseases are a burden that can be dealt with using therapy involving stem cells. The lab’s news release says the treatments require large numbers of stem cells that are not easy to produce. Scientists are trying to learn how to grow large amounts of high-quality adult stem cells for those therapies.

On Earth, the production of large quantities of stem cells has been challenging because two-dimensional culture conditions don’t exactly work like the human body. Scientists have learned that microgravity conditions on the ISS create three-dimensional cell growth that resembles how cells grow in the human body. This makes microgravity an ideal platform to produce stem cells to improve treatments and patient care on Earth.

The lab says understanding microgravity’s impact on stem cells and stem cell-based products could be groundbreaking. Researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center are the ones who are helping lead this research effort. Those researchers will see if stem cells (that are capable of producing a variety of tissue cells — heart, brain, and blood) could be used in regenerative medicine therapies.

“One of the biggest limiting factors in clinical therapies here on Earth is that it’s always hard to make enough high-quality stem cells needed for the treatments,” said Arun Sharma, an assistant professor at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “So, if we can leverage microgravity to grow more stem cells than we could on Earth, that could be a huge benefit for patient care.”

If the stem cells can thrive and be reproduced in space, we could maybe see biomanufacturing cells in space in the future, and ultimately help treatments on earth and maybe improve or save people’s lives.

“Previous stem cell experiments on the space station have actually shown that there can be an improvement in how these cells divide in microgravity, as well as a change in their pluripotency, or their ability to be a stem cell,” he said. “If we can grow cells two- or three-fold better than what we can do on the ground, that’s really exciting, not just for basic science for using these stem cells, but also for clinical applications.”

Brock Roberts is the Supervisor of the Gene Editing & Stem Cells Team at the Allen Institute, and he spoke to KIRO 7 about the Institute’s involvement as the cells are taken into space. He acknowledged that this will be the first time the Institute has provided cells that will be sent into space.

“Groundbreaking or ground-leaving its’ great… I’ll be really really interested in whether zero gravity or microgravity conditions influence essential mechanical properties of the cells,” said Roberts.

Caroline Hookway, also a scientist at the Allen Institute, also is excited to see how the cells perform in the micro-gravity of the ISS.

“There’s no cell that’s in isolation. All of your cells are carefully organized into structures in the body so they’re all pushing and pulling on each other. Those forces are affecting what they can do and what they do — so I can imagine gravity is another kind of force on these cells. So if you manipulate gravity, you might also affect what the cells do and what they can do.”

If the launch on May 21 is scrubbed due to weather or other factors, the backup date is May 22.