Learning how everyday things work in space, such as how to effectively brush teeth or how hair grows, is intriguing, but knowledge of how medical research translates from Earth’s surface to above its atmosphere is limited.

A new alliance between the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory aims to drive the progress of regenerative medicine research in microgravity environments — specifically, aboard the ISS.

The question is “‘What can we do in space that we can’t do on Earth that makes a difference?’” said William Wagner, director of the McGowan Institute. “That’s a pretty exciting question, because it’s currently unanswered; we don’t know what the key value of microgravity is. I think when we find that, we can attract investment, we’re going to begin to identify what the most promising technology is.”

The ISS National Laboratory and the McGowan Institute will collaborate with partners from industry as well as other academic research centers and government agencies to drive the progress of regenerative medicine research aboard the ISS. As part of this alliance, Pitt will develop facilities on campus to advance research and meet with potential partners, while working in coordination with the ISS National Laboratory on flight opportunities to the orbiting laboratory. The program will focus on microgravity life sciences research and development, with a line of sight toward products and services for clinical application on Earth.

“What has to happen now is knowing how we can leverage research into a treatment or technology that someone will invest in because it will replace the current way we do things here on Earth,” Wagner said. “We are very enthusiastic about this, because we believe the time is right to move from the observational to the more practical, moving things toward commercialization. One of the things we’re going to try to do is give industry the best and brightest research in our country, not just at Pitt, but other universities as well, to pitch different concepts and partner with those concepts to help develop them.”

An example of this research in action could include exploiting the unique behavior of stem cells in microgravity in order to improve cell-based therapies for a variety of diseases and impairments, such as traumatic brain injury and type I diabetes. Similarly, microgravity could allow 3D printers to create complex tissue structures that are difficult to achieve in the presence of full gravity.

This alliance — a core element of the ISS National Laboratory Industrial Biomedicine Program — was unveiled at the 8th annual ISS Research and Development Conference held in Atlanta earlier this year.

University leaders are optimistic this alliance will be the next big step in space research and commercialization.

“The McGowan Institute has built on its deep history advancing the development of artificial organs to establish a position of internationally recognized leadership in regenerative medicine,” said Rob A. Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for research at Pitt. “The ISS National Laboratory will benefit from that deep expertise, as well as our commitment to rapid clinical translation.”

The products of the Industrial Biomedicine Program will help build the fundamental business case for the industrialization of crewed platforms in low Earth orbit. In future alliances, the ISS National Laboratory will work with companies and research partners who seek to find solutions to common problems on Earth through space-based experimentation on the ISS National Laboratory.

“The ISS National Laboratory is proud to announce this alliance with Pitt and McGowan in order to develop biomedical products in space that could benefit human health on Earth,” said ISS National Laboratory Chief Strategy Officer Richard Leach. “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.”

More details about the alliance are available on the ISS National Laboratory’s website.

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