A while back, Abba Zubair, M.D., Ph.D., medical and scientific director of the Cell Therapy Laboratory at Mayo Clinic's Florida campus, was given a $300,000 grant from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space to explore growing stem cells in space. (Way up there with all the stars and planets and stuff.) His belief is that this could be the next frontier, if you will, in the treatment of stroke patients.
And while the project's takeoff has been delayed, the Florida Times-Union reports he's about to send a capsule of test cells to the very edge of space. As soon as the weather cooperates, the stem cells will be passengers on a high-altitude balloon to see how they fare upon re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.
If all goes well, Dr. Zubair will be one step closer to his ultimate goal of getting stem cells aboard the International Space Station to test whether stem cells will grow faster in space than here on Earth.
He talked about what that might mean last year in a "Medical Breakthroughs" segment on Ivanhoe.com. "Currently, to grow enough cells for a few patients, it takes up to a month," he says. "Everything we do, from cell division to organ developing, is impacted by gravity. So some previous studies show if you take out the gravity, meaning really that you reduce the presence of gravity, actually a stem cell can grow a little bit faster."
The catch is not knowing what the faster growth rate will do to the cells and what will happen once they come back down to Earth. "One of the things that we are worried about is as cells grow faster, there is a tendency to be malignant," Dr. Zubair tells Ivanhoe.com. "So what we are worried about is … will they behave the same way as the cells grown here or would they be transforming and become cancerous? We have experiments that we will perform to ensure that this doesn't happen."
That's why Dr. Zubair describes this project as a first step. "We want to see first how the cells are growing there, and when they come back, are they safe," he says.
But before any of that can happen, the cells first need to make it into space. And that's why Dr. Zubair tells the Times-Union he's so excited about the prospects of the high-altitude test. "The knowledge we will gain from this experiment will enhance the capacity of humans to reach out deep into the vastness of the universe," he says.