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China science

Tianzhou-1 experiments to put stem cells to the space test

Remote controlled study of weak gravity on stem cell division is ‘for long-term goal of space emigration’ says researcher

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 April, 2017, 12:05am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 April, 2017, 12:17am

Will humans one day be able to regrow limbs like lizards, or give birth on board a spaceship?

They sound like questions from science fiction, but they’re actually the subject of remotely controlled experiments on board China’s first cargo spacecraft ­the Tianzhou-1, which lifted off on Thursday.

Although the unmanned craft’s main job is to deliver fuel and supplies to the ­orbiting Tiangong-2 space lab it will also play host to a number of ground-breaking scientific experiments, which will be conducted remotely by Earth-based scientists.

A team lead by Tsinghua University professor Kehkooi Kee will research how weak gravity affects the development of human embryonic stem cells in space.

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“It’s an important experiment because it is the first step towards directly understanding human reproduction during space exploration,” Kee told Xinhua. “To what extent the human embryonic stem cell can differentiate in space is still unknown. Will the process be delayed? If so, by how much?”

On Earth, it usually only takes six days to form germ cells from the stem cells, and two weeks to form sperm-like or egg-like cells. The experiment on the Tianzhou-1 will last 30 days. Kee said he did not know what stage the cells would progress to in space, although he expected at least the first stage of the primordial germ cells to appear.

“This is for the long-term goal of space emigration,” Li Xushi, the deputy chief designer of the craft, told China Global Television Network. “During space travel, which is measured by light years, we have to figure out a feasible way of human reproduction.”

In another stem cell experiment, scientists from the Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences will study the effects of microgravity on how stem cells multiply and form into cells with different functions.

The spacecraft is carrying embryonic stem cells and embryoid bodies of mice, which scientists plan to observe in space through telescope images, and compare the results with experiments conducted on the ground.

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“Maybe scientists will be able to induce stem cells to grow into certain tissues or organs in space in the future to serve people on Earth. If a human is injured and loses organs in future space migration, the lost organs might be regenerated,” research team member Lei Xiaohua told Xinhua.

He said the team plannes to continue their research by culturing heart, kidney, liver and spleen tissues on China’s future space station, which is expected to be up by 2022.

At 13 tonnes, Tianzhou-1 – China’s latest step towards a permanent presence in space – is the heaviest cargo spacecraft ever to be launched by a Chinese launch vehicle, according to Nasa.

After docking with the Tiangong-2, the Tianzhou-1 will embark on a three-month orbit to carry out experiments and tests, before re-entering and self-destructing in Earth’s atmosphere.