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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 August, 2004, 23:48 GMT 00:48 UK
Space lends hand to stem cell study
Image of Mars, PA
The technology will be tested in a mission to Mars in 2008
UK tissue engineering experts are teaming up with Nasa on a series of space experiments which could boost stem cell research - and protect astronauts from radiation.

They will use the zero gravity of space to speed up the growth of new tissue from stem cells, potentially easing future organ donor shortages.

The Kingston University team hope the project will uncover better ways to protect astronauts from cosmic rays.

The research is in preparation for US manned missions to Mars in 2020.

Zero gravity

Dr Colin McGukin and Dr Nico Forraz will fly out to Nasa's Johnson Space Centre in two months, to use the zero gravity facilities.

They will be able to grow body tissue from stem cells in conditions that simulate space.

As well as allowing them to monitor the effects of space on the body, they will be able to find ways to prevent damage from the radiation that occurs in space.

From previous research they know radiation can destroy cells in the body which naturally defend it against illnesses such as cancer.

These anti-cancer cells can be found in umbilical cord blood.

Dr McGukin and Dr Forraz hope to be able to boost the number of these cells, or perhaps store them before an astronaut goes on a mission to be used as a treatment on the astronaut's return.

In further experiments the team will combine umbilical blood and bone marrow stem cells with tissue from adults to grow new human tissue.

They have found this tissue grows better at zero gravity, which mimics the conditions in the female womb.

Mimics the womb

When cells are cultured in the Earth's normal gravity they tend to grow relatively slow and as a flat layer.

At zero gravity they grow much quicker and in three dimensions, mimicking the way organs grow in the embryo in the womb.

Dr McGukin said: "One of the things that is very hard to do is get the stem cells to expand and have enough of them to work on. It's very hard to get a lot of tissue.

"We have now got this system where we can expand our stem cells."

He said this should make it easier to create new organs for patients, solving the problems of donor shortages.

It has the potential to revolutionise transplant technology
Dr Keith Fong, from the Centre for Aviation Space and Extreme Environment Medicine at University College London

They are concentrating on making nerve, liver and eye (cornea) tissue.

"It's not easy to find a donor. People do not like donating a bit of their eye when they die. It's always emotional and the family can be against it.

"If we can find a way, in someone with damage to only one eye, of taking a sample of their cornea and growing it into another cornea there would be no rejection problems.

"Within the next 20 years, there is also the potential to grow nerve pathways to repair damaged spines," he said.

The technology that they develop will be tested in space when Nasa sends an unmanned craft to Mars in 2008.

Professor George Fraser, director of the Space Research Centre at Leicester University, was excited by the radiation research.

"The possibility of engineering a radiation tolerance in the human body would be very important because it's one of the limiting features of space travel," he said.

Dr Keith Fong, from the Centre for Aviation Space and Extreme Environment Medicine at University College London, said: "It's a very interesting and very exciting piece of research and a good example of how space research might be of genuine value to medicine.

"It has the potential to revolutionise transplant technology. So it's very exciting."

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