Mary Kearns-Jonker of Loma Linda University was presented with the 2018 International Space Station (ISS) Compelling Results Award in Biology and Medicine at the ISS Research and Development Conference last week. Her research focuses on understanding the impact of microgravity on neonatal and adult cardiovascular progenitor cells—immature heart cells.
Kearns-Jonker’s work is particularly compelling because of the potential magnitude of its impact. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, resulting in more than 610,000 deaths each year. Additionally, congenital heart defects are seen in more than 40,000 infants each year. Insight gained from Kearns-Jonker’s research could shed light on how scientists could manipulate human cardiac stem cells to proliferate (multiply) or differentiate into specific cell types, which could have a tremendous impact on the development of stem cell therapies to repair or regrow damaged heart tissue.
In her research, Kearns-Jonker assessed the effects of simulated microgravity and spaceflight on the developmental properties of adult and neonatal cardiovascular progenitor cells. Specifically, she examined gene expression of the cells following culture in standard gravity conditions on the ground, simulated microgravity on the ground, and true microgravity onboard the ISS, in an investigation that launched to the space station on SpaceX CRS-11.
Kearns-Jonker found that following exposure to simulated microgravity or spaceflight, neonatal cardiovascular progenitor cells exhibited signs of “dedifferentiation” (returning to an earlier stage of development) and enhanced “stemness” (the ability of cells to self-renew, proliferate, and differentiate). Interestingly, these changes were not seen in adult cardiovascular progenitor cells.
Although stem cell therapies hold great promise to treat heart disease and heart defects, efficacy is currently limited. Kearns-Jonker’s research indicates that microgravity could provide a potential means of priming stem cells to improve the outcomes of stem cell therapies, bettering the lives of the many people affected by heart disease and congenital heart defects.