A Long March delivery rocket containing the Tianzhou 1 spaceship is seen at the Wenchang Launch Center in China's southern Hainan province prior to its launch in April 2017. Photo: Xinhua

Experiments undertaken aboard China’s Tianzhou 1 unmanned cargo spaceship have shown that heart stem cells grow faster in a microgravity environment, and Chinese scientists claim their latest finding may aid the nation’s taikonauts as they embark on future space treks.

Xinhua reported that the experiments involving induced pluripotent stem cells artificially reprogrammed and converted from mature cells could help develop scientific countermeasures to benefit astronauts who are constantly exposed to micro- or zero gravity when far away from the pull of the Earth.

Researchers with Tsinghua University, the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences as well as the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shanghai Institute of Technical Physics, placed mouse heart stem cells on the Tianzhou 1 when the spacecraft was launched in April 2017 for an in-orbit rendezvous with the Tiangong 2 space lab some 395 kilometers up in space.

Throughout the mission scientists investigated in vitro how prolonged spaceflight could affect cardiac differentiation of mice pluripotent stem cells, which have the capacity to morph into other types of cells.

An induced pluripotent stem cell, or iPS cell, is artificially derived from a non-pluripotent cell by “forcing” the expression of certain genes and transcription factors so it can be induced to have the same genetic information as an early embryonic cell.

The development of iPS cells are the catalyst for regenerative development to replace diseased or damaged cells, tissues and organs.

The research team found mice heart iPS cells developed significantly quicker aboard the Tianzhou 1 than they would back on Earth, indicating robust cardiac muscle cell formation.

During the experiment, a camera took bright-field and green fluorescence images of live cell samples, which were then transmitted to the Earth for further study.

In the future, similar automated stem cell experiments and cultivation have the potential to realize personalized cardiac tissue bio-manufacturing and drug tests during extra-long, deep space exploration missions. The cardiovascular health consequences of long-term space missions include, among others, stiffening of arteries that may in turn affect the body’s ability to control blood pressure.

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