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Mayo Clinic to grow cells in space

A Mayo Clinic researcher hopes to one day grow cells, tissue and organs — in space. Dr. Abba Zubair, Mayo-Florida Cell Therapy Lab medical director and a professor with the

ISS-International-Space-Station.jpg
International Space Station

A Mayo Clinic researcher hopes to one day grow cells, tissue and organs — in space.

Dr. Abba Zubair, Mayo-Florida Cell Therapy Lab medical director and a professor with the Mayo Center for Regenerative Medicine based in Rochester, says "micro-gravity" at the International Space Station is key to supplying humans with stem cells .

Zubair, who studies blood-clot-related strokes with funding from the Mayo Center for Regenerative Medicine, has been awarded a $300,000 grant from The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space to "send human stem cells into space to see if they grow more rapidly than stem cells grown on Earth."

"This is not just science fiction," Zubair said . "There are some studies in simulated micro-gravity that seem to suggest stem cells multiply better, or proliferate faster, in 'micro-gravity' than in 'one—G' on Earth."

Stem cells can develop into any type of human tissue. They can be sampled from bone marrow or fat, and coaxed to multiply.One roadblock (if regenerative medicine becomes the standard-of-care), Zubair said, is how to make cells quickly enough to meet patient demand.

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"To my mind, there's no better place than the International Space Station," he said. "It's super-controlled, everything is monitored, and then we have the micro-gravity."

Zubair's team will study "mesenchymal" stem cells that have low human rejection risk. Thus, patients would not necessarily need to donate their own cells.

Zubair wants to prove stem cells (progenitors of all human cells) do actually grow faster in low gravity, can get to space safely, will proliferate there, can be returned intact and, once back on Earth, are safe and effective in animal models.

If that happens, Zubair said Wednesday, he plans Phase I human clinical trials of neuron and blood-vessel stroke damage.

Astronauts will learn regenerative-medicine techniques, but the bioreactor eventually will be fully automated.

NASA and the National Institutes of Health are intrigued by potential human health benefits, so future funding is likely if the initial study succeeds.

Zubair believes stroke, burn or heart-attack patients could all benefit within a decade. Regenerative medicine isn't just pie-in-the-sky dreaming.

At Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Dr. Andre Terzic and team, who often touch base with Zubair, collaborate with Cardio3 Biosciences, which currently is running a European Phase III clinical trial for repair of heart-attack damage, using stem-cell techniques developed at Mayo in Rochester.

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Phase III means researchers are tantalizingly close to European regulatory approval, which would speed the U.S. approval process.

Just this week, Dr. Atta Behfar, a Mayo Rochester cardiology specialist, announced with his team, including Terzic, a new device to deliver stem cells directly into the heart — a tool being used in the European study.

If the space study succeeds, Zubair predicts a future burn patient with no viable tissue for transplant could have a few cells sent to space, with skin ready for transplant returning the next month.A team of engineers at the University of Colorado is developing a sterile bioreactor for Zubair.

Stem cells also could be used to grow organs for transplant into anybody without rejection risk, or with very low risk.

In the future, Zubair said, "induced pluripotent stem cells" (already-differnetiated cells from adult humans induced to become stem cells) or embryonic stem cells (cells from human blastocysts — the stage when a human embryo has about 150 cells, according to Mayo Clinic.com ) would have the greatest potential for mass production of organs for widespread human use.

The ultimate goal is to help humanity, Zubair said. As humans consider space exploration, replacement organs available for long-distance explorers could help.

"I am one of the believers that, one day, humanity will settle somewhere, either on the moon or even on a larger international space station," Zubair said. "So we would have a bioreactor there that you could be manufacturing cells or organs or tissue for human use there, or down on Earth."

Health reporter Jeff Hansel writes the Pulse on Health column every Monday. Follow him on Twitter @JeffHansel.

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