Medicine Exploration in Space

Scientists have started growing organs in space which could help thousands of people waiting for organ transplants and lead to other advancements in medicine.

The methods currently used are not as effective as they could be because organs develop in the womb, a gravity-reduced environment. Whilst the Earth’s gravity is constantly pushing down on the delicate structure of organs.

To evade this, scientists have turned to use scaffolds. However, it has become increasingly difficult to create organs that will work properly without risking damage to the organ. Scaffolds are proteins that will provide a surface for stem cells to attach to. The cells will form a rigid shape around the scaffold to create a similar replication to a pre-existing organ. However, scaffolds can damage the complex and delicate structure in blood vessels and veins and can also increase the risk of immune reactions to scaffolds. 

How a scaffold works. Photo Credit: The Wall Street Journal

The solution proposed by scientists is to develop the organs in space, a microgravity environment. In weightless conditions, cells can arrange themselves in their natural structure without the need for a scaffold (eliminating the risks of using a scaffold). In space, adult stem cells are sent to be developed into bone cartilage, tissue and eventually whole organs. 

This can be used in many ways:

  1. Organ transplants
  2. Drug Testing
  3. Reduces the use of animals in testing 
  4. To monitor what happens to astronauts bodies in space.
Photo Credit: NASA

Organ transplant lists at the moment have long waiting lists, leaving many with a poor quality of life. For example, without a kidney transplant, a patient will need dialysis 3 sessions a week which is invasive and uncomfortable. If we could prevent the need for dialysis equipment, we would also reduce costs because in the long term organ development in space is cheaper. 

Drugs must be tested in clinical trials. One of the first stages, before the drug is tested on humans, is tested on organs and animals. We would have more organs available for testing, reducing the need to test on animals. Additionally, the organs will be genetically and structurally closer to human organs so will produce more accurate results.

Astronauts return to Earth with worsened health and in the long term, astronauts are more likely to develop cancer. Scientists and doctors know what the effects of space are but they do not know the exact mechanisms that are responsible for them.  If we could track the deterioration of an organ in a space environment, we would be more capable of developing ways to counter these. 

In March (2020), astronauts onboard the International Space Station (ISS) were experimenting with mobile mini laboratories. They were aiming to see how stem cells would grow in space. They are hoping to upscale production to generate tissue and organs later on. 

Other research on the ISS on Cardiac Stem Cells showed that spaceflight affected communication between cells and development of cells. The spaceflight caused an increased expression of YAP1. YAP1 (a protein) is responsible for controlling cell proliferation and previous experiments in rodents have shown that it can introduce regenerative abilities. 

Hopefully, advancements in organ and cell culturing will have successful outcomes, both in space and on Earth. 

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