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Louisville group sends medical experiment supplies on Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis to space

A badge for the National Stem Cell Foundation's latest research mission to space. It includes an image of cells, tinted red and white, and a black-and-white drawing of the International Space Station.
Courtesy of National Stem Cell Foundation
This is a badge for the Louisville organization's latest research mission to the ISS.

The Kentucky-based National Stem Cell Foundation is doing research in space on neurodegenerative diseases. Supplies for a new experiment flew to the International Space Station last week.

A SpaceX rocket shot a craft filled with more than 6,000 pounds of cargo into Earth’s orbit Thursday. On board were brain organoids sent by the National Stem Cell Foundation in Louisville.

“Three, two, one, ignition and liftoff,” someone announced on a SpaceX livestream of the launch in Florida late that afternoon.

The organoids are collections of cells that mimic the central nervous systems of people with Parkinson’s disease and primary progressive multiple sclerosis, foundation CEO and co-founder Paula Grisanti told LPM News.

Why send them to space?

“Cells behave differently in space than they do on Earth. In space, in 3D, you can see cells talking to each other in a way that's not possible on Earth,” Grisanti said. “Because cells also mature more rapidly in space, you can see in an accelerated way what's happening when diseases develop.”

They hope the research will help discover new medical therapies.

The National Stem Cell Foundation has been working on this particular initiative for several years.

Grisanti said Thursday’s flight aboard NASA’s commercial resupply expedition — with the rocket and spacecraft provided by the private company SpaceX — is the project’s sixth mission to the International Space Station.

The foundation funded its first five flights to space through philanthropy, she told LPM. The latest one is supported by a grant.

“These are iterative missions,” she said. “So we collect data from each flight and change the next experiment going up a little bit, based on what we've learned from the previous mission.”

This time around, astronauts aboard the ISS will help them run the experiment. The foundation is studying inflammation in the brain and examining that as a “marker of how neurodegeneration begins.”

“You can see where inflammation begins in those processes and hopefully find a point at which you could intervene with a new drug or cell therapy that would stop it from happening,” she said.

Future research missions are planned, including one that will send fresh organoids into space to research Alzheimer’s disease.

Morgan is LPM's health reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.

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