Health

A Kentucky-based company will soon send human cells into space on a NASA rocket with the goal of potentially helping scientists find treatments and cures for diseases like Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis.

Medical science in space is a relatively new concept. Without gravity, scientists can look at cells in a different way than they can back on Earth. And Lexington-based Space Tango is a part of that industry; the company designs shoe box-sized laboratories that can go to space and be remotely controlled by scientists back on the ground.

Jana Stoudemire, commercial innovation officer for Space Tango, said the company designs, builds and operates facilities on the International Space Station for technology and biomedical research. Scientists think they may be able to glean new information on Parkinson’s and an aggressive type multiple sclerosis from the space experiment.

“Microgravity opens the ability for us to see that biological process in a way that can potentially provide new insight,” Stoudemire said. 

Later this month, NASA is sending a resupply rocket up to the International Space Station – and aboard will be some brain cells from patients with Parkinson’s and MS, along with additional experiments from other commercial companies involved in the medical field. 

Paula Grisanti, the CEO of the Louisville-based National Stem Cell Foundation, said the foundation was already funding experiments to find treatments for neurodegenerative diseases. 

But Space Tango CEO Twyman Clements approached her and asked if the same types of experiments could benefit from a zero-gravity space lab, Grisanti said. 

“In microgravity, you’re going to be able to see those cells interact with each other in a way that you can’t see on Earth,” Grisanti said. “What they hope is in the ability to watch that for 30 days, we’re going to see what goes wrong in neurodegeneration for those diseases.”

Grisanti said 30 days is the life cycle of a cell — so scientists will be able to watch the entirety of how the brain cells evolve. They’re hoping to find new ways to study the cells that could lead to treatments and cures for both Parkinson’s disease and Progressive MS.

Grisanti said progressive MS, a more aggressive form of multiple sclerosis, can advance quickly.

“So every nerve cell in your body has a neighborhood around itself [that] waters it, feeds it, takes out the garbage — if they stop talking to each other for any reason, they start neglecting the nerve cell, and it starts to degenerate, and that is neurodegenerative disease,” Grisanti said. “You’re diagnosed and you go straight downhill, from being diagnosed to a cane to a walker to wheelchair to bed pretty quickly.”

Right now, Grisanti said progressive MS only has one treatment. She hopes the space experiment will open the door to more options for progressive MS patients.

A practice launch with the brain cells of patients with Parkinson’s and MS patients will launch July 21 as NASA sends a load of supplies to the International Space Station. A full lab with the cells will go up in the fall.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.