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NASA and stem cells

NASA’s space shuttle program came to an end last week after 135 flights over 30 years. Some might argue that the shuttle programme (total cost estimated at $200 billion) did not deliver the expected outcomes for space exploration but we cannot deny that some very useful technologies and scientific knowledge have arisen from this extended experiment in re-usable orbiting hardware. A description of this list is beyond the scope of the portal but one fascinating experiment made its way into space aboard the last flight of the shuttle Atlantis at the end of July. The shuttle delivered adipose stem cells from six adults to the International Space Station where they will take part in an ongoing NASA research programme aimed at greater understanding the impact of the harsh radiation environment of space on cellular ageing.(Oristem Article ; Article) Astronauts are bombarded by much greater levels of gamma radiation without the shielding of Earth’s atmosphere to protect them and in consequence it has been hypothesised that they may suffer from accelerated ageing. Naturally, we can’t really expect an astronaut to sit around in space for 50-60 years to see if he or she gets old quicker than the rest of us (although Russian cosmonauts such as Sergei Krikalev, record holder of the longest duration spaceflight of 803 days) have tried hard, it makes more sense to analyse the damage accumulated by individual cells in culture. But why bother going into space at all? It must cost a pretty penny to send even a few culture flasks into space so can we really justify an experiment of this type when we have plenty of much better calibrated sources of gamma rays here on Earth? It turns out that stem cells behave very differently in zero gravity and even research into microgravity here on Earth shows that the gene expression profile of stem cells changes markedly when they are no longer exposed to normal gravity therefore it makes sense to combine all the harmful elements of space into a single study aimed at developing ways to protect anstronauts. Spaceflight wreaks havoc on the body -- astronauts experience muscle atrophy, bone-density loss and slower heart rates in orbit so if longer missions, such as those needed for the exploration of Mars, are to become reality, we need such research to ensure that the Human explorers return to Earth in a health condition.