There’s been a lot of talk recently about stem cell therapy and its potential to treat a wide range of serious illnesses. Most of the discussion is focused on things like cancer, heart disease, and dementia-related illnesses. But in the background, researchers have quietly been working on a number of projects that could eventually lead to them taking stem cell therapy into space.
According to a recent report from Endpoints News, an Israeli company with a history of developing groundbreaking medical therapies has been working with the National Institutes for Health (NIH) and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to come up with a viable treatment for radiation poisoning. The company was recently introduced to NASA in hopes that the same treatment could also help astronauts returning to earth after long missions.
Challenges of Space Travel
NASA is acutely interested in the Israeli research because of the potential of the project to change future space travel. Apparently, the physical challenges of spending time in space are such that they can have a debilitating impact on astronauts.
An astronaut who spends as little as 5 to 11 days in space can experience a 20% loss in muscle mass unless he or she engages in at least two hours of rigorous exercise per day. Astronauts subjected to longer missions can experience a loss of bone density of up to 2% per month.
If that’s not enough, extended space travel also negatively impacts the immune system. According to Endpoints News, astronaut Scott Kelly suffers with a hyperactive immune system after having spent 340 days on the space station. The stem cell treatments now being studied could be the answer to preventing such problems in the future.
Stem Cells Promote Healing
So what exactly are researchers working on? A procedure whereby placental stem cells are transplanted into patients in order to regenerate muscle tissue. Pluristem, the Israeli company behind the research, says they have produced positive results thus far. They are currently in the late stages of two testing programs and just beginning a third.
Pluristem says they are gearing up for clinical studies that would involve applying the treatment to astronauts. If successful, astronauts could be treated with stem cell therapies during and after their missions. The stem cells would stimulate muscle growth to compensate for any loss associated with space travel. In theory, the stem cells would also prevent significant bone density loss as well.
The Advanced Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI) in Salt Lake City, UT says the Israeli research makes sense. They say that medical science has long known of the healing properties of stem cells. The fact that placental stem cells can be used to treat limb ischemia and muscle injury is also well known.
Doing It Safely and Effectively
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the ongoing research is utilizing placental stem cells safely and effectively. Though the cells can be transplanted into patients without the need for tissue matching, there is always a risk of rejection or other complications.
By contrast, the procedures ARMI teaches doctors are comparatively risk-free. They are procedures that utilize autologous material rather than stem cells donated from other sources. Autologous material is harvested directly from the patient being treated, so safety is really not an issue.
It is clear that space travel does have a negative impact on the human body. If stem cell therapies can minimize that impact, future space travel could be less dangerous. As an added bonus, the treatments given to astronauts could also be applied to earthbound patients suffering from a range of musculoskeletal issues.