The University of Pittsburgh is teaming up with the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory (ISSNL) to study how the low-gravity environment of space can improve treatments for kidney disease, traumatic brain injury and juvenile diabetes.

Pitt’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine will collaborate with the ISSNL Industrial Biomedicine Program on research that will look at the unique behavior of stem cells in microgravity, 3D printers and other possible advancements.

Stems cells reproduce differently in low gravity, said William R. Wagner, director of the McGowan Institute. They don’t turn into other cells as quickly.

”They tend to stay more stem-like, more able to maintain a basic state before turning into other cells, which is useful,” Wagner said.

Microgravity could allow 3D printers to create complex tissue structures that are difficult to achieve in full gravity. It’s hard to print a complicated 3D structure in full gravity using squishy materials, Wagner said.

“When you do 3D printing in microgravity, you can work with weaker gel material. On Earth, if you print a gel-like material with 3D printing, it will tend to collapse. It will tend to spread out and make a puddle,” Wagner said. “In microgravity, it will retain the form that came out of the nozzle. As a result you can work with softer materials, and in many cases, the biological materials that we want to print are very soft, and we have to do things on Earth to stiffen them up so they don’t collapse.”

As part of the alliance, Pitt will develop Earth-based facilities on campus to advance research and meet with potential partners, while working with the ISSNL on flight opportunities to the orbiting laboratory. Richard Leach, the chief strategy officer for the space station’s lab, said the partnership will seek to develop biomedical products in space that could benefit humans on Earth.

“Part of the role of the ISS National Laboratory is to create and implement innovative strategies to enhance the research capacity of the orbiting laboratory, and we believe alliances like this will pave the way for future collaborations to advance the discoveries of space-based science,” Leach said.

Wagner said he’s excited about the chance to allow space-based science to immediately impact patients. If it is successful, more companies might be willing to invest in work being done in microgravity in low Earth orbit in five or 10 years.

“If we do that, then we have a much more robust platform, not just for medical research but other things like travel to the moon as far as materials development, and other areas of science that one wants to accomplish further out in space,” said Wagner.

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