Orbiting Organoids: Research in Space to Unveil New Neurodegeneration Insight

Xconomy National — 

More than 250 miles above the Earth’s surface aboard the International Space Station, a first-in-kind study of neurodegenerative disease is expected to reveal never-before-seen cell interactions.

The National Stem Cell Foundation (NSCF) is funding the study, which is the result of a bi-coastal collaboration between the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) Research Institute and Aspen Neuroscience, a San Diego startup developing personalized cell therapies for Parkinson’s disease.

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Collaborating with the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) Research Institute on the other side of the country, the two teams have been working together for more than two years, exchanging and sharing technology to develop patient-derived, induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) organoid models.

The 3D human organoid models were launched to the International Space Station earlier this month for research in microgravity, with the goal of furthering our understanding of neurogenerative diseases back on earth.

The models incorporate microglia, the inflammatory cells of the immune system that are implicated in the development of Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and other neurodegenerative diseases, explains Paula Grisanti, CEO of NSCF.

Studying the 3D models in microgravity, researchers are able to observe cell interaction, gene expression, and other developments not seen in a regular lab.

“It’s not possible for you to have this same 3D model of cell interaction on Earth. This will be the first time in space where we can see these in 3D,” Grisanti tells Xconomy.

Cells behave differently in space, though it’s not completely understood why. Cartilage grows faster and bigger, proteins fold differently, and cells mature more rapidly. Being able to see this happen in real-time—the models will be filmed for the full 30 days—will offer researchers unprecedented insight into neurodegenerative disease.

“To see how those cells talk to each other for 30 days when they are up on the international space station will allow scientists to see the point at which things start to go awry in those diseases and hopefully identify a new place or a new point at which you could intervene with a cell or gene therapy that may or may not currently exist,” says Grisanti.

The research will touch back down to earth in early January at which time both labs will analyze the models to determine what exactly happened during their time in space. All data will be published for full dissemination.

(Paul Kuehl, Jason Rexroat, Gentry Barnett, Valentina Fossati, Jason Stein, Scott Noggle, Jana Stoudemire. Image courtesy of Space Tango)

NSCF has budgeted for a year of post-flight research after which the researchers will send the models back to the space station for a second flight to confirm what they saw and test new hypotheses, explains Grisanti. A second year of post-flight research also is funded, as is a second flight at the end of 2020.

“We know we’re going to see something new because it has never been done before,” says Grisanti, who explains that the budget and project will continue to be extended as long as new theories and opportunities are being developed.

The December flight was the second for the research teams at Apsen and NYSCF. A preliminary flight was conducted in July 2019 to test the hardware systems and prepare for the SpaceX CRS-19 launch.

Aspen has also been pressing ahead with its own research on solid ground. Last week, the company closed a $6.5 million seed round led by Domain Associates and Axon Ventures.

Aspen’s cell therapy approach was developed by its co-founders, Jeanne Loring, professor emeritus and founding director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at The Scripps Research Institute and Andres Bratt-Leal, a former post-doctoral researcher in Loring’s lab. Also serving as Aspen’s chief scientific officer, Jeanne Loring was in May named Xconomy’s Stem Cell Pioneer of the Year.

(Main image: Experiment loaded for launch at Kennedy Space Center. Courtesy of Space Tango)