A European Space Agency- (ESA) assisted experiment on the International Space Station (ISS) is opening the door for the possibility of growing artificial blood vessels for surgery on humans.
Down on Earth, the methods of growing three-dimensional structures made from human cells usually involve biocompatible scaffolds.
However, up in space, growing these cells is a different matter, as the Otto von Guericke Magdeburg University study shows.
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What is the experiment?
The experiment, known as the Spheroids experiment, demonstrates how cell cultures in microgravity — more or less synonymous with weightlessness — do not need external support. Furthermore, they could create blood vessels naturally.
The experiment, led by Daniela Grimm of the Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg, observed how the cells from the inner layer of our blood vessels — endothelial cells — reacted when in microgravity on the ISS.
Endothelial cells help regulate blood flow to our organs, and our blood pressure, by controlling the expansion and contraction of our blood vessels.
Observing these 3D structures from space, in weightlessness, was ideal for the research.
What happened when the cells were in space?
The experiment, carried out in 2016, closely monitored the cells as they were inside ESA's temperature-controlled Kubik incubator over 12 days.
In space, the human cells combined into tubular structures, similar to the inner lining of our own blood vessels.
"These tube-like aggregations resembled rudimentary blood vessels, something never achieved before by scientists cultivating cells on Earth," said Grimm.
It was a first-off, as Grimm noted: "nobody knew how the cells would react to space. The Spheroids project has been an exciting adventure from the very beginning."
This video provided by ESA explains the research:
What happened when the cells were brought down to Earth?
Interestingly, once back on Earth, the cells formed 3D spheroid aggregated on their own, which pleasantly surprised the scientists.
"We learned new things about the tube formation mechanism, and the results confirmed that gravity has an impact on the way key proteins and genes interact," explained Markus Wehland, a molecular biologist from Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg.
The experiment doesn't end there, however. The team is still investigating how, in fact, the cells turned into spheroids.
"We are culturing different cells to improve tissue engineering of artificial blood vessels," Wheland said.
This research could be integral for the future of medicine. By growing blood vessels in space, human tissues needed for transplants or new drug production could become more accessible.
To add the cherry to the cake, this research could directly benefit astronauts, as their own blood pressure changes during spaceflight — something endothelial cells could help with in the future.