Crew launched to research “holy grail” heart disease treatment

Image by NASA-Imagery from Pixabay
Mark Thompson, astronomer and TV presenter, on the launch and life in the ISS.

SpaceX launched NASA’s Crew-5 to the International Space Station at 16:00 UTC on the 5th of October. 

The crew includes 2 NASA astronauts – Nicole Aunapu Mann and Josh A. Cassada – as well as JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) astronaut Koichi Wakata, and Roscosmos cosmonaut Anna Kikina. 

This is the first female-led NASA Commercial Crew Program mission, and the first mission to take a Native American woman to space with Nicole Anapu Mann of Wailacki heritage as commander.

The journey to the ISS took 29 hours and the crew docked at 20:57 UTC on the 6th of October. 

The crew will be doing over 200 experiments and technical demonstrations, including exciting research on heart stem cells in microgravity, with the potential to have a significant impact on heart disease treatment. 

According to the British Heart Foundation, heart and circulatory diseases cause a quarter of all deaths in the UK every year – an average of 460 deaths a day.

Professor Vass Vassiliou from the University of East Anglia said: “Heart disease is an umbrella term referring to multiple conditions affecting the heart or the circulation… They can lead to debilitating symptoms.” 

“Some of the heart conditions, such as heart attacks, will lead to part of the muscle of the heart dying and being replaced by scar. Stem Cells are being increasingly used to try and stimulate growth of the muscle to replace that scar, so the heart can go back to normal – even after a big heart attack.”

Research into this ‘holy grail’ treatment has been going on for over three decades but has not yet been successful. 

NASA say microgravity has the potential to increase stem cell production and the viability of cells and accelerate their maturing process.

These stem cells can also be modified to mirror human heart cells (healthy or diseased) and therefore be used to test stem cell treatment and other drugs before moving on to human trials.

Professor Vassiliou emphasised that this research is into treatment for heart muscle that has already been damaged, and there are plenty of ways to prevent this damage occurring: “Controlling any conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol is important, but also equally important is having a healthy diet, exercising and avoiding smoking.”

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