Wednesday, November 17, 2021

University of Iowa researchers are investigating the impact that low gravity environments have on regenerative tissue technology that could be used for therapy during space missions.

The intent is to advance the collective ability to use stem cell technology during long-term spaceflight for astronauts that require treatment.

“We are very excited to be doing research at the nexus between space exploration, mechanobiology, and regenerative medicine,” said Edward Sander, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Iowa and co-principal investigator for the study. “The research we are doing will benefit astronauts on extended missions and the development of cell manufacturing processes on earth.” 

Kristan Worthington and Edward Sander

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) EPSCoR program at Iowa State University is funding the research through a grant awarded to Sander and Kristan Worthington, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering and principal investigator. Worthington and Sander are faculty affiliates with the Iowa Technology Institute (ITI).

Worthington and Sander will collaborate with Dr. Mark Ott, who leads NASA’s Johnson Space Center Microbiology Laboratory in Houston, Texas, as well as Dr. Cheryl Nickerson, professor of life sciences at the Arizona State University Biodesign Institute.

The first task of the study is to determine how low gravity environments will impact the ability of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to differentiate and replicate.

IPSC technology is an important part of regenerative tissue engineering. It involves reprogramming normal, adult cells to become stem cells, a cell type that has the capacity to turn into a range of different tissue types. IPSCs have the potential to be an unlimited source of any type of human cell needed for therapeutic purposes.

Stem cell behavior is controlled by biochemical and mechanical signals from the environment. Low gravity environments alter both forms of stimulation.

Researchers will form two types of human iPSC aggregates. The proliferation rates of these aggregates, their ability to form different cell types, and their expression of self-renewal and mechanotransduction genes will be compared in conventional environments and in the modeled microgravity environment. Computational modeling will be used to estimate the physical forces of the microenvironment and a NASA-designed rotating wall vessel (RWV) bioreactor will create the low gravity setting.

The study will also investigate the impact that donor sex has on the effectiveness of iPSCs in microgravity environments.

IPSC aggregates from four male and four female donors of similar ages will be tested to compare their behavior in low gravity conditions. All cell lines for each iPSC aggregate are derived from the same type of tissue and reprogrammed the same way.

“This grant will enable us to generate pilot data for larger research efforts and to partner with experienced researchers at NASA and Arizona State,” Sander said. “We are also excited to bring concepts, tools, and discoveries into the classroom for our students as we prepare them for careers in growing areas of industry in regenerative medicine, such as cell manufacturing.”

The one-year grant is valued at $181,339.46.