Stem cells in space; doing research in microgravity

Here at the stem cell agency we consider California to be a global leader in stem cell research. But in this guest blog Michael Roberts at CASIS explains how his organization is literally out of this world 
when it comes to research

International Space State: by NASA (Crew of STS-106) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In a field as critical to human health and drug development as stem cell biology, it is all the more important to explore and exploit new research pathways. One example of a new and uncharted pathway is the exposure of stem cells to reduced gravity conditions that induce changes in cell growth and differentiation. This pathway is now accessible to scientists and innovators for far less cost than ever before and is made available by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, via a formal Request for Proposals (RFP).

What is CASIS? About two years ago, we began to take over management of the U.S. National Laboratory on-board the International Space Station. The purpose of having CASIS (a nonprofit, non-government entity) take over management from NASA is to ultimately increase use of this National Lab by academics, industry and non-NASA government agencies for research that will improve life on Earth. CASIS supports research through both grant funding and facilitation of the NASA and service provider interactions necessary to get research into space—and our newest RFP is titled “The Impact of Microgravity on Fundamental Stem Cell Properties: A Call for Spaceflight and Ground-based Experiments.”

While biology in space might seem like a radical concept, CASIS works with investigators to transform their research questions into space-based experiments—and stem cell research in space may provide an experimental model system that enables improved ex vivo modeling of cell differentiation and tissue generation and yields new insights into biological processes for disease treatment. Microgravity-induced changes in cell cultures include global alterations in gene expression and the aggregation of cells into larger and more organized 3-D structures with tissue-like functions. Research in microgravity has already enabled breakthroughs in human health, medicine and fundamental biology (you can read more on our website —and when applied to stem cell science, microgravity research has the potential to advance stem cell therapies and to significantly reduce costs of drug development/screening by identifying accelerated models of cell proliferation and differentiation.

Much of what we know about the effects of microgravity on stem cell properties comes from ground-based experiments using rotating bioreactors that create modeled or simulated microgravity on Earth. In both space-based and simulated-microgravity experiments, various types of stem cells and progenitor cells have shown distinct responses. Some types of cells (e.g., cord-blood and embryonic stem cells) show increased proliferation and viability. Others (e.g., hepatic, neuronal and adipocyte precursors) show enhanced differentiation. In fact, in some cases, simulated microgravity alone is sufficient to induce differentiation without addition of inducers.

In effect, depending on the cell type, microgravity may induce accelerated maturation and differentiation, maintenance of pluripotent marker expression and multi-lineage differentiation potential, or various lineage-restriction phenotypes. Affected properties include morphology, migratory potential, cytoskeletal structure, adhesion rates and cell-cycle kinetics. References for publications describing stem cell experiments in simulated microgravity on Earth and in space-based experiments can be found on the CASIS website (listed above).

CASIS believes that the ability of microgravity to alter the behavior of stem cells provides an exciting opportunity to augment traditional ground-based studies. Simulated microgravity experiments have demonstrated that further investigation is prudent—but the capability to perform long-term studies investigating stem cells in microgravity only recently became possible with the increased access to the space station’s National Lab for non-NASA research. Because of this, CASIS has allocated grant funding for this research area (for both ground-based and spaceflight experiments), hoping to encourage scientists from basic and applied fields of biology and medicine to explore the benefits of microgravity research and ultimately improve the quantity and quality of stem cell research on-board the National Lab.

Importantly, awarded projects from the CASIS stem cell RFP will receive support via not only grant funding but also facilitation of service-provider interactions and flight coordination to and from the space station. Proposers need not have any previous experience in space science; in fact, a major goal of the CASIS National Lab model is to make it easy for new-to-space investigators to transition their ground research into successful space experiments. Therefore, all U.S. individuals and entities are encouraged to submit proposals.

Finally, the powerful research platform of the National Lab supports not only cell biology research but also research across the physical and life sciences as well as technology demonstration and Earth/space observations. CASIS issues several funding opportunities each year in various areas, but we also accepted unsolicited proposals at any time through our website, and we are happy to talk with all interested parties about the benefits of space-based research and how it can be used to complement ground studies to accelerate innovation and discovery.

To learn more about the stem cell RFP and other research opportunities, visit

Michael Roberts, CASIS Staff Scientist

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