Cardiac cells that beat in space offer hope for better heart treatment on Earth

In just three weeks, stem cells became beating heart cells aboard NASA’s SpaceX-20 mission.

The experiment was conducted in March 2020 by NASA astronauts aboard the mission and researchers from Emory University School of Medicine and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Before trying the real thing on the International Space Station (ISS), Chunhui Xu, PhD, Kevin Maher, MD, and colleagues had used space simulation machines to improve the ability of pluripotent or immature stem cells to turn into heart muscle cells. The aim was to determine the effects of zero gravity conditions on stem cells and to optimize the production of clinically relevant cardiomyocytes on Earth.

Stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes have been used to treat heart failure in animal models. They have also been used to study hereditary heart disease separately from the heart of the source patient.

“These cells have the potential to treat heart disease in children and adults, but repairing a damaged heart requires a large number of heart cells,” said Xu, an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Emory School of Medicine. “We hoped to find a more effective way to generate these cells by exploring the use of microgravity.”

After the cells aboard the space station returned to Earth and arrived in Emory, Xu and Maher spent the past year delving into the research findings.

The results showed that these stem cells grow faster in space without gravity.

They shared their findings — along with NASA astronaut Jessica U. Meir, PhD — with patients from the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Heart Center at a recent event moderated by Lucky Jain, MD, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Emory School of Medicine and Chief Academic Officer for Children’s.

Hear NASA astronaut Jessica Meir talk about helping Emory professors Chunhui Xu and Kevin Maher’s research “come to life” in the unique environment of the International Space Station.

“We’re thinking about the future of care for patients with heart problems,” said Maher, a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Emory School of Medicine and director of the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at Children’s. “If you can learn how to grow stem cells faster, it increases the chance of better treatment of patients. We are working hard to see how we can use these types of stem cells to make the heart stronger in the future.”

The ISS National Laboratory called the spaceflight experiment an important step for next-generation space research, as freezer cell technology offers many advantages for both space research and research on Earth.

The potential clinical implications of this research mean that children and teens with damaged heart valves may instead be given a replacement valve grown from their own cells. In addition, cells from a child with arrhythmias can be taken by biopsy and cultured to test drugs and treatments, potentially opening a new door to personalized medicine.

Media contact: Jill Wue

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Story published July 6, 2021. Photos courtesy of NASA.

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