Local researcher sends cells to space hoping for breakthroughs in treating Parkinson’s, other diseases

Paula Grisanti participates as a panelist
Dr. Paula Grisanti participates as a panelist during the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington, D.C.
(Courtesy of ISS National Lab)

Jeanne Loring, professor emeritus in the department of molecular medicine at Scripps, got to experience a feeling “like part of me is in space and part of me is coming back to earth.”

Loring, a Parkinson’s disease expert who lives in Del Mar, sent her cells to the International Space Station for research that might be able to shed light on treating Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and other neurodegenerative diseases. Her cells returned to earth on Aug. 20.

“This is really personal to me,” she said, adding that the process involves a lot of analysis and was made more complicated because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It allows me as a scientist to be personally really involved in the work, and it makes a difference.”

Tubes containing neural organoids being loaded into a rack in preparation for placement in Cube Lab.
Tubes containing neural organoids being loaded into a rack in preparation for placement in Cube Lab.
(Courtesy of Space Tango)

The goal was to see how cells communicate in the type of microgravity environment that exists in space.

“Our first two flights were learning experiences, to say the least, because everything is different when you put something on the space station,” Loring said. “It needs to be small, the experiment needs to be able to proceed on its own because the astronauts don’t do lab work, generally, on the space station.”

“What we’ve seen so far, and we haven’t published this yet, but I’m willing to say that we have seen increased signs of neuroinflammation when the cells are in space, compared to cells on the ground,” Loring said.

She added that more study is required to determine what those findings could mean for astronauts and neurological issues.

The nonprofit National Stem Cell Foundation provided funding for the study. The nonprofit has worked with MD Anderson Cancer Center, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, National MS Society and New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute.

Dr. Paula Grisanti, the foundation’s CEO, said the study allows researchers to “watch cells interacting in a way that nobody’s ever been able to see them interact before.”

“Maybe we’ll identify that spot where things start going south in these diseases and you’ll be able to intervene at that point with a new drug or cell therapy that would stop it from happening,” she added. “I also think that this is a study of neurodegeneration, and I think once you hit that first domino, you’re going to see a follow-on effect. If what we find is very hopeful for these neurodegenerative diseases, it won’t just be Parkinson’s and MS we’re talking about, it will be other neurodegenerative diseases, including ALS and Alzheimer’s.”