US Space Shuttle Endeavor 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Scott Audette)
A test on adult stem cells to study the influences of weightlessness on bone
cells and resultant osteoporosis that was to have been performed by Israeli
astronaut Col. Ilan Ramon on the ill-fated space shuttle Columbia in 2003 will
finally be performed on Monday by the Endeavour – on the penultimate mission of
the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s shuttle
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The Endeavour mission will close a circle for Prof. Dan
Gazit of the the Hebrew University’s skeletal biotechnology laboratory, who
planned and developed the original experiment for Ramon.
On the flight
with Ramon – who was a good friend of Gazit’s – was a cell culture device that
contained adult stem cells. Gazit’s work focused on the regeneration of skeletal
tissue by converting adult stem cells into skeletal tissue through genetic
engineering. Since it is known that astronauts quickly lose bone mass while in
space – in effect developing osteoporosis – the object of the project was to
identify those genes that are either active or suppressed in the cells that
generate bone and therefore are responsible for the phenomenon, the professor
The experiment was to include a comprehensive analysis of
thousands of genes within the cells that were on the Columbia shuttle and their
comparison to those grown in the HU lab.
The results would have
implications not only for the health of the astronauts but also for elderly
persons suffering from osteoporosis and others confined to bed rest for extended
periods who also lose bone mass.
After the loss of the cells on board due
to the crash over Texas that killed all seven abroad eight years ago, Gazit –
who went to the US to observe the experiment from the ground – Dr. Gadi Pelled
and colleagues in the HU lab used an alternative technology to mimic
weightlessness on Earth.
Working on the Hebrew University-Hadassah
Medical School campus in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem, they used a dynamic cell culture
system that rotates around its axis, generating free-fall conditions for the
cells growing inside it as if they were in a state of no gravity in space. The
results of that research, published in the scientific journal Tissue
Engineering, showed that the weightlessness caused the stem cells to change into
fat cells and prevented their being converted into bone cells. These results
explained why lack of movement or weight can lead to loss of bone
“We took the same adult stem cells that were on the Columbia, grew
them in our lab as if they were floating in space and performed an analysis of
some 20,000 genes that worked or not compared to those under conditions of
gravity,” Pelled told The Jerusalem Post.
the experiment in space for the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic
Studies, established in Herzliya by the Israel Air Force Association.
institute, named after the late philanthropists Zachary and Larry Fisher,
connects former air force personnel to facilitate public discussion in Israel
about aviation and space issues.
Gazit’s group is now working on the
development of new treatments based on the use of adult stem cells for
rehabilitation of the spine for osteoporosis patients. This method is based on
getting the body’s own repair cells to reverse loss of bone mass and to repair
the damage from which these patients are suffering, such as spine fractures.