Space science researchers successfully created early-stage blood cells at the China Space Station, a step closer toward finding a way to treat diseases by producing any kind of human cells.
The experiment was conducted after the Tianzhou-6 cargo craft docked with the space station. The cells have been brought back to Earth by the Shenzhou-15 spacecraft on Sunday, along with three taikonauts, or Chinese astronauts.
During the experiment, pluripotent stem cells – a special kind of stem cells that have the potential to grow into all major human cells – were brought into the Wentian lab module on the space station, where some of them successfully grew into hematopoietic stem cells – another kind of stem cells that produce blood cells.
In this way, scientists managed to produce for the first time blood cells in space.
"Actually we have achieved the first goal of our project," said Lei Xiaohua, a researcher at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology, Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology. "And we have a lot to do next."
Lei told China Media Group (CMG) that his team will compare the cells produced in space with cells on Earth, trying to locate the exact genes that control the growing process.
"We will do more studies around stem cells with the Tianzhou-7 and 8 missions," Lei said.
Stem cells are key to the scientific field of "regenerative medicine," which is focused on regenerating human organs, tissues and other parts to heal original parts damaged by aging, disease or accident.
Observing stem cells in space is a hot topic in this field of research because cells, like the entire human bodies, can be affected by the micro-gravity environment in space.
One of the goals of China's manned space program is to search for possible habitable planets, said Cang Huaixing, a chief researcher for the station's scientific experiments, at the Technology and Engineering Center for Space Utilization under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "The space environment has micro-gravity and high radiation, so how to travel, survive and have children in such an environment is the main task of our research."
Dozens of other experiments
The Shenzhou-15 crew also successfully obtained three-dimensional structural images of their skin cells with the country's self-developed two-photon microscope.
This achievement, the first of its kind worldwide, marked the success of the in-orbit verification of the two-photon microscope, providing a promising tool for future health monitoring of taikonauts in orbit.
China also successfully performed the first in-orbit ignition test in the Mengtian space lab module's combustion cabinet during the Shenzhou-15 mission.
The test verified the functions of the experimental combustion system of the space station and the accuracy and feasibility of the overall experiment process.
In addition, it is worth mentioning that the operation of the country's Stirling thermoelectric convertor passed its in-orbit verification. The heat-to-electricity converter showed an internationally advanced conversion efficiency during its smooth operation, according to the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA).
China also completed in-orbit experiments on liquid metal thermal management on its space station for the first time ever during the Shenzhou-15 mission.
These experiments verified a series of key technologies concerning bismuth-based metal in micro-gravity, such as controlled melting, expansion and convection heat transfer.
As of May 29, the Shenzhou-15 crew had conducted eight human factors engineering research activities, 28 space medical experiments and 38 space science experiments covering life ecology, material science and fluid mechanics, and obtained valuable experimental data.