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Retina Implant, Stem Cell Studies Set for Space Station

International Space Station

International Space Station (

9 Apr. 2020. A company providing laboratory modules for biomedical research on the International Space Station received funding from NASA for three new projects. Space Tango in Lexington, Kentucky received awards for lab modules to manufacture protein-based retinal implants, study stem cell therapies for regenerative medicine, and produce stem cells for personalized medicine.

Space Tango prepares cargoes in what it calls CubeLabs, standard cube-shaped modules that can be built and configured together into TangoLab systems for launch on SpaceX Falcon rockets, as well as deployment, descent, and retrieval. CubeLab modules are self-powered, either sealed or vented, and range in size from about 100 to more than 360 cubic inches. The company says it has two TangoLabs currently deployed on the International Space Station.

While CubeLabs offer the structure and support for scientific experiments, their contents are created by Space Tango partners, such as academic labs and research companies. In the new group of studies, the biotechnology company LambdaVision in Farmington, Connecticut is providing a system to produce artificial retinas made from photoactive proteins that work like the natural protein rhodopsin to simulate photoreceptor cells in human retinas.

LambdaVision is a spin-off enterprise from University of Connecticut, founded by chemistry professor Robert Birge. The company’s protein-based synthetic retinas are designed to restore failing eyesight in people with the eye diseases retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration. The three-year, $5 million NASA contract funds studies of producing these retinas in space to determine any benefits from microgravity, or the weightless environment, on performance of the retinas.

Another NASA contract, with Space Tango and University of California in San Diego, funds research on stem cells at the university’s Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center. The contact, also for three years and $5 million, supports an orbiting lab studying with experiments on stem cells derived from blood and immune-system cells in microgravity, looking for changes in biomarkers indicating cellular malfunctions associated with cancer.

Other research in the UC-San Diego orbiting lab is investigating brain organoids, functioning pieces of brain tissue derived from stem cells. The study plans to test effects of microgravity to produce oxidative stress similar to aging on brain cells, and simulate disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. A separate UC-San Diego experiment tests effects of microgravity on liver cells, to generate malfunctions leading to liver fibrosis and fatty liver disease, associated on earth with alcohol consumption, obesity, or viral infections.

“We envision that the next thriving ecosystem of commercial stem cell companies, the next nexus for biotechnology, could be created 250 miles overhead by the establishment of these capabilities on the ISS,” says Catriona Jamieson, director of the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center, and co-principal investigator of the project in a UC-San Diego statement.

A third NASA contract partners Space Tango with Cedars-Sinai medical center in Los Angeles. This research also involves stem cells, but focuses on producing stem cells for personalized medicine, where treatments are tailored to match the precise molecular composition of the patient. Clive Svendsen, co-principal investigator on the project, studies stem cells for neurodegenerative diseases.

“The development of new approaches to address current stem cell manufacturing,” says Svendsen in a Space Tango statement, “challenges has the potential to change the paradigm of personalized medicine.” The contracts are funded by NASA’s Research Opportunities for ISS Utilization program.

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