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Mayo doc's stem cell experiment blasts into space

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — As a boy growing up in Kano, Nigeria, Dr. Abba Zubair dreamed of going to space.

On Sunday, his work hitched a ride with a private rocket blasting off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on a trip to the International Space Station.

Dr. Zubair, an associate professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the Mayo Clinic's Florida campus, prepared a science package involving stem cells as part of a resupply mission to the ISS aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

"It was my first rocket launch view," said Dr. Zubair, who was on hand to watch — and listen to the deafening sound — as his experiment rode into space. "It was incredible."

The stem cells -- specialized cells derived from bone marrow — come from Dr. Zubair's lab. Dr. Zubair, according to a report from the Mayo Clinic, specializes in cellular treatments for disease and regenerative medicine. He hopes to find out how the stem cells hold up in space and if they can be more quickly produced in microgravity.

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More specifically, Zubair said, he is hoping the research can help in treatment of patients who have suffered a stroke-related brain injury.

"Stem cells are known to reduce inflammation," he said in a press release. "We've shown that an infusion of stem cells at the site of stroke improves the inflammation and also secretes factors for the regeneration of neurons and blood vessels."

The problem with such a treatment — and studying the treatment — is generating enough stem cells for the job. Based on current regenerative medicine studies, patients need at least 100 million stem cells for an effective dose. However, reproducing stem cells can be time consuming since the cells naturally limit their numbers.

"Scalability is a big issue," Dr. Zubair said. "I've been interested in a faster way to make them divide."

And on earth, everything is impacted by gravity, from how high we grow to our bone size and other physiological traits. "So, how can we use the effect of gravity to impact how the cells divide?" he asked.

Experiments that simulate stem cell growth in microgravity, thus far, have shown cells do grow more quickly than experimental controls, he said. So he began working toward getting an experiment into space. The experiment needed to be designed so the crew onboard the space station could run the experiment with some simple training, and Dr. Zubair will be able to watch the experiment in real time via a video connection. "We'll get some data as early as next week," he said.

If all goes well, growing stem cells in space — something Dr. Zubair admits sounds like a dream of the distant future — might become a reality more quickly than many people think.

"There are some companies interested in floating labs," he said. "I think the future is bright. There are a lot of possibilities in the area of regenerative medicine."

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Dr. Abba Zubair

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