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Producing Human Tissue in Space

ZURICH (SW), March 2020 — On March 6 at 11:50 p.m. EST, the International Space Station resupply mission Space X CRS-20 took off from Cape Canaveral (USA). On board: 250 test tubes from the University of Zurich containing adult human stem cells. These stem cells will develop into bone, cartilage and other organs during the month-long stay in space.

Oliver Ullrich, M.D., Ph.D., and Cora Thiel, Ph.D., the two research leaders at the UZH Space Hub, are testing their innovative concept of human tissue production in weightlessness for the benefit of transplantation medicine and precision medicine and as an alternative to animal experiments.

"We are using weightlessness as a tool," Dr. Thiel explained.

Physical forces such as gravity influence how stem cells differentiate and how the formation and regeneration of tissue is organized. The researchers assume that due to the low gravity on board the ISS, newly formed cells organize themselves into three-dimensional tissues without an additional matrix or other auxiliary structures. The experiment will take place in a mobile mini-laboratory, the CubeLab module of the U.S. company Space Tango. The module consists of a closed and sterile system in which the stem cells can proliferate and differentiate at constant temperature.

If the test project is successful, plans call to gradually switch from a small laboratory to a larger production scale. In the future, the process can be used to generate tissue transplants such as cartilage or new liver cells in space from stem cells that are harvested from individual patients in a routine procedure.

According to Professor Ullrich, an additional application is emerging in precision medicine. "Artificially produced autologous human tissue could be used to determine which combination of drugs is the most suitable for the patient in question. In addition, human tissue and organ-like structures produced in space could help to reduce the number of animal experiments," he said.

Launch of the International Space Station re-supply mission Space X CRS-20 from Cape Canaveral, USA, on March 6. Image courtesy of NASA.

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