Out of this world: Stem Cell Research Soars into Space

Dr. Josephine Allen

Whether you have visited Kennedy Space Center’s astronaut training center, attended space camp or watched Apollo 13, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know training to be an astronaut is intense.

Astronauts spend months preparing for their missions and are in peak physical condition when they leave Earth. But upon return and as they age, astronauts have been found to suffer from increased cardiovascular conditions, including cardiac atrophy, cardiac dysrhythmias, orthostatic intolerance and reduced aerobic capacity. While cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, a 2016 study out of Florida State University found that Apollo lunar astronauts are four to five times as likely to die from it than the average American.

Houston, we definitely have a problem.

As Elon Musk and other space frontiersmen inch closer to building rockets that could take everyday people (re: not trained and fit astronauts) to Mars, the moon and deeper into space, it is important not just to have the travel technology to get there but have the health insight also to understand the effect space travel may have on the body.

Enter Josephine Allen, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Florida in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering.

Allen specializes in tissue engineering research and is preparing to send vascular cells into space as the culmination of a year-long grant through NASA.

“When astronauts go into space, they experience extreme conditions, which include magnified levels of radiation compared to Earth and anti-gravity, which doesn’t exist here,” she said. “We need to study these extreme environments and see what they tell us about changes to the health of cells to inform us of potential causes for disease states.”

Her study includes adult stem cells that can be used for vascular tissue engineering and focuses on the effect of weightlessness on the health of these cells.

A hallmark of cardiovascular disease is dysfunctional and unhealthy vascular cells. This study aims to compare the health of Earth-grown vascular cells with vascular cells that go into space and experience radiation and microgravity environments onboard the international space station.

The health of vascular cells is essential for a properly functioning cardiovascular system because they line the inside of blood vessels, keep the blood moving, and are also inside the blood vessel wall and respond to blood pressure.

The cells will be studied on campus in the Allen Lab at UF to look at changes in genomics and transcriptomics, which provides insight into the genes that are actively expressed and change based on external environments, and to gain better insight into the molecular mechanisms behind cardiovascular disease through seeing how these cells restructure themselves.

“NASA is interested in studying cells that have gone into space to gain more information on the altered state of cells and opening up a new line of research on how we can prevent or mitigate those issues that manifest in cardiovascular disease,” Allen said.

The mission launches from Cape Canaveral onboard a SpaceX 16 rocket and will last approximately one month.