Stem cells from Seattle's Allen Institute to be studied on private mission to space

Science pioneered at Seattle-based Allen Institute will blast off into orbit on May 21. The NASA-funded experiment will study a collection of stem cells provided by the Allen Institute for Cell Science, a division of the Allen Institute.

For the first time in the medical research nonprofit organization’s history, its collection will be in space.

"It’s tremendously gratifying. We work hard. We do work that’s exciting, we also do work that’s tedious. And it really helps us to know that all of that leads to something with a larger purpose," said Brock Roberts, supervisor of the Gene Editing Team with Allen Institute for Cell Science. 

The groundbreaking experiment is part of a private mission to the International Space Station. Four astronauts with Texas-based Axiom Space will be in orbit for five days conducting the experiments. They will send back real-time data for researchers at California-based Cedars-Sinai to study. 

The astronauts will be using reprogrammed stem cells from human skin, part of the Allen Cell Collection. One goal of this study is to evaluate how the cells react in a reduced or zero gravity (microgravity) environment. 


The research could help scientists like Roberts and his team take their studies to unbelievable heights.

"What we’re trying to do is understand the potential of stem cells, what they can do if they ever could be used in incredibly important therapeutic applications. What are the specific cues, triggers and ways to manipulate them so that they become ultimately other cell types? How do they make those decisions?" said Roberts.

The astronauts will be aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket. Their discoveries, as well as those of Cedars-Sinai, could break new ground in the efficiency of stem cell production for research, and ultimately for medical applications that may use cells for therapy, like repairing cardiac tissue after a heart attack, for example.

"Ultimately, we think that will be really, really important for understanding how stem cells can be turned into to other cell types, potentially for therapeutic reasons. And also how cells in general undergo transition. And any transitions are important for health reasons. For example, the transition from healthy cells to cancerous cells," said Roberts. 

Lift-off is scheduled for May 21 at 2:37 p.m. PDT, weather pending. A backup day is scheduled for May 22. The rocket will launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"Very happy to have the cells not only around us, but somewhere up there above us too. It’s a new thing that we didn’t imagine, but we’re excited about it," said Roberts. "When the space station cruises over, we’ll keep an eye out for it."