ISS photo by Getty Images. Courtesy of the UPMC Media Relations.

The University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine (MIRM) has a new research partner. It’s floating 254 miles above the earth.

This month, the U.S. National Laboratory at the International Space Station (ISS) announced that a new group of researchers and private experts will be working to advance biomedical research and development onboard the orbiting lab.

The goal, according to the ISS laboratory’s chief strategy officer Richard Leach, is to develop biomedical products in space that could benefit human health on Earth and eventually “advance the discoveries of space-based science.”

This could include things as remarkable as transplant organs grown in space.

NASA approached researchers at the McGowan Institute about leading the multi-year effort in late 2018.

Speaking with NEXTpittsburgh, MIRM Director William Wagner explained that regenerative medicine examines how to enhance the body’s natural healing abilities. Conducting research in lab and production environments with zero gravity could prove to be an invaluable tool for future medical advances.

While there is some research available on the impact of zero gravity, Wagner says right now it’s scattered and somewhat thin.

“Generally, people have found that stem cells maintain their ‘stemness’ more in zero gravity, meaning they stay in their undifferentiated state. They don’t turn into nerve, or muscle, or bone,” he says. Other studies show that 3D printers achieve great success creating intricate, tissue-like structures without the pressure of gravity weighing down their gel-like materials.

“We want to move this from discovery to implementation,” Wagner says.

His first task: Build a strong network of additional partners. Within a year, Wagner expects to have around a dozen academic collaborators and at least as many industrial and business partners.

“Pitt will be the center of this effort,” he says, “but there will be research going on at other universities as well.”

The consortium will not only study the underlying technology of regenerative medicine, but also the logistics of how technology developed in space could be scaled up for broader use here on Earth.

While the idea of engineers one day building an orbiting heart farm may seem outlandish and prohibitively expensive, Wagner points out that earthlings already spend untold fortunes dealing with the effects of organ failure.

In the not-too-distant future, creating transplantable organs in space may well be the most economical option. But of course, more research is needed.

“How much is it going to cost to maintain those orbiting organ farms?” he said. “That’s the million-dollar question.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.