February 21, 2017

Stem Cells From Mayo Physician’s Lab Launch into Space

By Lindsey Kirkeby

As seen in Mayo Clinic News Center, featuring Center for Regenerative Medicine's Dr. Abba Zubair:

Photo: Stem cells from Mayo physician's lab launch into space

Stem cells from Mayo physician's lab launch into space

Feb. 19, 2017

When the latest rocket launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sunday, Feb. 19, it carried a special piece of cargo. The rocket, which carried items to resupply the International Space Station, also carried donated adult stem cells from a research laboratory at Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus.Researchers at Mayo Clinic hope to learn whether stems cells can be reproduced more quickly in a microgravity environment, which ultimately could translate into new treatment options for patients.

The rocket launched by SpaceX, an American aerospace manufacturer and space transport services company, is part of NASA’s commercial resupply missions to the International Space Station.


Abba Zubair, M.D., Ph.D., Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, has eagerly awaited the launch, which carried biological cells from his laboratory. Dr. Zubair, who specializes in cellular treatments for disease and regenerative medicine, hopes to find out how the stem cells hold up in space. The cells' trip into space has had several delays over the past couple of years.

Dr. Zubair says he’s eager to know whether these special cells, which are derived from the body’s bone marrow, can be more quickly mass-produced in microgravity and used to treat strokes.

"This space cargo carries important material for research that could hold the key for developing future treatments for stroke." — Abba Zubair, M.D., Ph.D.

"We know stem cells grow differently using simulated microgravity,” he says. “Primarily, our focus is to see if microgravity actually can help stem cells to expand faster, so that we can grow more of them to bring back to use for human application.”

Microgravity is the condition in which gravity is reduced and people or objects appear to be weightless. The effects of microgravity can be seen when astronauts and objects float in space.

“At Mayo Clinic, research drives everything we do for patients,” says Gianrico Farrugia, M.D., vice president, Mayo Clinic. “This space cargo carries important material for research that could hold the key for developing future treatments for stroke — a debilitating health issue. Research such as this accelerates scientific discoveries into breakthrough therapies and critical advances in patient care.”


Dr. Zubair says he has dreamed of this moment his whole life.His passion for space goes back to his childhood in Kano, Nigeria. There, he says he came across a book about the first moon launch and became instantly enthralled. In high school, he recruited other physics students to build a model rocket prototype using corrugated metal and rudimentary materials from the local blacksmith.

When it came time to apply for college, however, a school adviser steered Dr. Zubair away from becoming an astronaut. “He said it may be a long time before Nigeria sends rockets and astronauts into space, so I should consider something more practical,” he recalls.

Dr. Zubair came across a request for research proposals that involved medicine and outer space four years ago. His mother had died of stroke in 1997, and he had been thinking about stem cells as a treatment for stroke-related brain injury.


Collaborating with James Meschia, M.D., Neurology, and William D. Freeman, M.D., Neurologic Surgery/Neurology/Critical Care Medicine, Dr. Zubair studied stem cells in mouse models of stroke.

“Stem cells are known to reduce inflammation,” Dr. Zubair explains. “We’ve shown that an infusion of stem cells at the site of stroke improves the inflammation and also secretes factors for the regeneration of neurons and blood vessels.”

"My work in regenerative medicine has always been intentionally translational ... that’s what makes our project unique." — Abba Zubair, M.D., Ph.D.

One problem is that it may take as many as 200 million cells to treat a human being, and developing vast numbers of stem cells on Earth can take weeks.

“It’s further complicated, because some patients are unable to donate cells for themselves, and, sometimes, there aren’t enough donors who are a good match, as sometimes occurs for minorities,” he says.


With funding from the nonprofit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, Dr. Zubair hopes to find that, in space, stem cells can be reproduced safely in large quantities, providing new opportunities for patients. He’ll gather real-time information about the cells as astronauts conduct experiments measuring molecular changes. “We’ll be looking to see if there are genes activated in microgravity and analyzing the stages of the cell cycle,” he says.

“We may discover proteins or compounds that are produced that we can synthesize on Earth to encourage stem cell growth without having to go to microgravity,” Dr.Zubair says.

The experiments will continue after the expanded stem cells return to Earth. “We’ll study them to make sure they’re normal, functional and safe for patients with stroke,” Dr. Zubair says. “My work in regenerative medicine has always been intentionally translational — not just to study what the cells do and what can be done with them but to make a difference for patients. That’s what makes our project unique.”

For the launch, Mayo Clinic is collaborating with the Center for Applied Space Technology in Cape Canaveral, and BioServe Space Technologies in Boulder, Colorado. The Center for Applied Space Technology supported Dr. Zubair's research by providing strategic mission planning, proposal development, and space-flight technical support, and served as an interface between the research team and various space activities and agencies. BioServe provided space flight hardware, on orbit research protocol and scheduling interface.


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