Doctor at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville working to see if stem cells multiply faster in space

A local doctor is turning to space to see if stem cells will multiply faster in zero gravity so he can better treat stroke patients.

Medical Director for Transfusion Medicine Dr. Abba Zubair of Mayo Clinic told us stem cells are not easy to grow because they’re designed to keep their numbers.

“We are looking for ways to grow cells, and we’ve tried everything. We have to think out of the hat,” Zubair said.

After more than three years of planning and preparation, and with technical assistance provided by the Center for Applied Space Technology, Zubair was able to take his theory to space.

“We think gravity might play a role. It impacts how we look, our shape and height,” Zubair said.

He’s living out his childhood dream of wanting to become an astronaut. Zubair’s career guidance adviser in Africa told him as a child, “Abba, you can do anything you want. But, before Nigeria starts sending rockets, it may not be in your lifetime.”

His other passion was helping others who are suffering from illnesses. He was able to combine both dreams in an effort to better treat his patients.

Zubair told us the challenge is growing stem cell fast enough for the needs of the patients. He and his team put stem cells on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that took off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in February. Specialized incubator cassettes housed these stem cells and they were placed in an experimental container, the size of a briefcase, which was taken into space for a month.

Zubair said the stem cells that went into space did expand faster.

“So far, everything looks good, meaning the cells we took into space are actually transformed to become cancer,” Zubair said.

His team assists in monitoring and testing these stem cells. They’re constantly looking at the chromosomes, growth charts, DMA damage and analyzing the genes to see if they’re safe to use for patients.

“We know how they look, we have markers to see if they grew faster -- and which we did see some growth in space,” Zubair said.

He hopes that his weightlessness technique will be able to help stroke patients one day.

“I lost my mom because of stroke and I really don’t want anyone to experience what I went through,” Zubair said.

The microscopic cells are already known to heal cells in bones, nerves and hearts.

Zubair’s new clinical trial will try to help regenerate brain cells damaged by a stroke.

“When the stem cells are able to be injected to the patient, they travel to the brain or the area and the participate in the repair,” Zubair said.

They’re now stored in liquid nitrogen tanks in the labs. At Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Zubair showed us other vials with stem cells that were stored at freezing temperatures.

“Each of these small vials has cells and sometimes 5 million cells, maybe,” Zubair said.

Zubair said stem cells are the fundamental item of every organ.