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A study of cells at the space station looks for reasons for major illnesses

A study of cells at the space station looks for reasons for major illnesses

Dopaminergic neurons growing in a culture vessel (20x magnification). Skin biopsy from a patient with Parkinson's disease was reprogrammed into induced pluripotent stem cells. The stem cells were then differentiated into dopaminergic neurons (green), the same cells lost in patients with Parkinson's disease. Work is under way to use these cells to replace lost neurons as a treatment for the disease. Credit: Aspen Neuroscience

High above the Earth, researchers are conducting the first such study to help patients with Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis on the planet below. An experiment at the International Space Station requires that they activate these diseases by studying the interaction of nerve and immune cells of the brain.

The experiment, carried out at the SpaceX CRS-18 cargo spacecraft, will look at what causes damage to the nervous system that is common in both diseases and find out how living in space affects similar cells in healthy astronauts.

The study is led by stem cell expert Andres Brat-Lille of Aspen Neuroscience in La Jolla, California, and Valentina Fossati, a researcher for Multiple Sclerosis with the New York Stem Research Institute in New York.

"This is the first time anyone has investigated the effects of microgravity and the space flight of such cells," Brother-Lil said. "These cells are difficult to study in the lab because of the way gravity affects them. The best part is now that we can do it in space!"

Neuron killers

Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis are neurodegenerative diseases that damage the brain and central nervous system. Researchers suspect that this damage may be due to the glitter in the body's immune system. NASA is interested in how space flight changes the immune system as some astronauts experience strange effects on missions, including the temporary activation of dormant viruses.

To find out more, Brett-Lille and Fossati focus on the types of cells in the brain that appear to play key roles in the onset of both diseases. The first types are the neurons and cells they create, which continue to form the body's neural network and allow the brain to monitor and control it. The second is microglia: immune cells that patrol the brain and try to defend the neurons from threatening attackers.

"Microglia are found in every part of the brain and it really starts to look like neurodegenerative diseases are developing as cells begin to behave improperly or overreact," Hossati said. "Improper microglia can contribute to killing neurons."

A study of cells at the space station looks for reasons for major illnesses

Microglial cells growing in a culture vessel (63x magnification). Microglia are the immune cells of the brain and play a role that is not fully understood in neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis. The cells shown here were differentiated from induced pluripotent stem cells, made by biopsy of the patient's skin. Credit: Foundation New York Stem Cell Research Institute (NYSCF)

New way of making old cells

To find out if this is the case, researchers should examine the growth of neurons and microglia in people with the disease and compare them with healthy people of the same age. Because these cells are found in the brain, they cannot be extracted safely.

Brett-Lille and Fossati have found another way, using new stem cell technology called "induced pluripotent stem cells" to make neurons and microglia from the skin cells of patients and healthy people in the labs.

Cell space

Brett-Lille and Fossati launched newly created diseased and healthy cells into space to push them away from the powerful impact of Earth's gravity.

"We know that forces can influence cell behavior by changing aspects, such as their shape. So what happens when you remove gravity? "Brother-Lil said. "How cells respond will tell us new things about how they work."

The cells are now in the space station, living within the framework of CubeLab developed by Space Tango, a company that develops microgravity research equipment. CubeLab is approximately the size of a small shoe shoe.

Inside the CubeLab is a camera for viewing the experiment, as well as a pair of 96-chamber containers holding the cells. A "clean plate" holds the patient's Parkinson's cells and a healthy person of similar age. The second plate contains the cells of a patient with multiple sclerosis and a healthy donor with age. The pipe and pump system automatically delivers fluid to cells in their chambers.

Over the course of 30 days, Brett-Lille and Fossati can be watched remotely to see how neuronal cells are organized into balls called "organoids" and how microglial cells respond to and infiltrate them. After a month, the cells will be returned to Earth, where researchers plan to test their form and arrangement and test their DNA to see if microgravity and exposure to space radiation have changed their gene expression.

Research findings could eventually help scientists identify new ways to treat Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis. Also, discovering how nerve cells are affected by microgravity and radiation can lead to better methods of protecting astronauts in space, especially in long-term missions.

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Space Station Study Seeks Reasons for Major Diseases (2019, July 31)
Retrieved July 31, 2019

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