Children’s and Emory’s Space Experiment Offers Hope for Kids’ Hearts on Earth

Stem cells became beating cardiac cells while aboard NASA’s SpaceX-20 mission

ATLANTA (June 30, 2021) – In just three weeks, stem cells became beating cardiac cells while aboard NASA’s SpaceX-20 mission.

The experiment was conducted in March 2020 by NASA astronauts aboard the mission and researchers at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University School of Medicine.

Before trying the real thing on the International Space Station (ISS), Chunhui Xu, PhD, Kevin Maher, MD and colleagues have been using space-simulation machines to enhance the ability of pluripotent, or immature, stem cells to turn into cardiac muscle cells. The goal was to determine the effects of zero gravity conditions on stem cells and to optimize the generation of clinically relevant cardiac muscle cells on earth.

Stem cell-derived cardiac muscle cells have been used to treat heart failure in animal models. They've also been used to study inherited cardiac diseases separately from the heart of the source patient.

“These cells have the potential to treat heart disease in kids and adults, but repairing a damaged heart requires a large number of heart cells,” says Xu, Associate Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Emory School of Medicine. “We were hoping to identify a more effective way to generate these cells by exploring the use of microgravity.”

After these cells returned back on earth and arrived at Emory, Xu and Maher spent the last year diving into the study results. They shared their findings alongside NASA astronaut Jessica U. Meir, PhD, with patients of Children’s Heart Center during a recent event, moderated by Lucky Jain, MD, Chief Academic Officer for Children’s and Chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Emory School of Medicine. Results showed that these stem cells grow faster in the zero gravity conditions of space.

“We think about the future of taking care of patients with heart problems,” says Maher, Director of the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at Children’s and Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Emory School of Medicine. “Being able to learn how to make stem cells grow faster has the potential to increase the chance for a better treatment for patients. There’s a lot of work being done to see how we can use these types of stem cells to make the heart stronger in the future.”

The ISS National Laboratory called the spaceflight experiment a significant step for next-generation space research, as freezing cell technology offers many advantages for space research as well as research on earth.

The potential clinical implications of this research mean that kids and teens with damaged heart valves may instead receive a replacement valve grown from their own cells. Additionally, cells from a child with heart arrythmia could be taken by biopsy and grown to test medications and treatments, potentially opening a new door to personalized medicine.

Read the exclusive CNN story on this research.

About Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

As the only freestanding pediatric healthcare system in Georgia, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is the trusted leader in caring for kids. The not-for-profit organization’s mission is to make kids better today and healthier tomorrow through more than 60 pediatric specialties and programs, top healthcare professionals, and leading research and technology. Children’s is one of the largest pediatric clinical care providers in the country, managing nearly one million patient visits annually at three hospitals, Marcus Autism Center, the Center for Advanced Pediatrics and neighborhood locations. Consistently ranked among the top children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has impacted the lives of kids in Georgia, across the United States and around the world for more than 100 years thanks to generous support from the community.

About Emory University School of Medicine

Emory University School of Medicine is a leading institution with the highest standards in education, biomedical research and patient care, with a commitment to recruiting and developing a diverse group of students and innovative leaders. Emory School of Medicine has more than 2,800 full- and part-time faculty, 556 medical students, 530 allied health students, 1,311 residents and fellows in 106 accredited programs, and 93 MD/PhD students in one of 48 NIH-sponsored Medical Scientist Training Programs. Medical school faculty received $456.3 million in external research funding in fiscal year 2018. The school is best known for its research and treatment in infectious disease, neurosciences, heart disease, cancer, transplantation, orthopaedics, pediatrics, renal disease, ophthalmology and geriatrics.

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