Astronauts often suffer negative health effects, such as bone loss and muscle atrophy, during their time spent in microgravity. In an effort to mitigate these issues, NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) have given the go-ahead for space-based stem-cell research on the International Space Station (ISS). It’s hoped that such testing could lead to new therapies, both in space and on Earth (particularly for the elderly, who deal with similar conditions).

Stems cells represent cells that haven’t yet determined their precise function. They display the ability to give rise to a spectrum of cell types and ensure life-long tissue rejuvenation and regeneration. Previous experiments on Earth and in space demonstrated that microgravity induces changes in stem-cell growth, division, and specialization.

At the World Stem Cell Summit (San Diego, Calif.) earlier this month, it was revealed that two stem-cell investigations will fly to the space station next year. In one panel session, scientists Mary Kearns-Jonker of Loma Linda Univ., Calif., and Roland Kaunas, Texas A&M Univ., College Station discussed their planned research that will gauge the impact of microgravity on fundamental stem-cell properties.

Specifically, Kearns-Jonker’s research will delve into the aging of neonatal and adult cardiac stem cells in microgravity in hopes of improving cardiac cell therapy. Kaunas is part of a research team developing a system for co-culturing and analyzing stem cells mixed with bone tumor cells in microgravity. The thrust of the system is to identify potential molecular targets for drugs specific to certain cancer types.

NASA selected CASIS to use the ISS’s U.S. National Laboratory through 2020. CASIS supports and accelerates innovations and discoveries with the goal of enhancing health.