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Word of Appreciation

The University of Stellenbosch and the Department of Animal Sciences are greatly indebted to Mr. Mark Shuttleworth for this unprecedented opportunity to do valuable research under zero gravity conditions.  We thank him for his cooperation and financial assistance in our endeavour to try and find answers to scientific questions that might play a major role in the future of the animal kingdom on this planet.

Scientific Questions to be addressed

In the field of regenerative health treatment, stem cells might become the answer to many debilitating and life-threatening conditions and diseases.  Stem cells are the most primitive of all body cells, and are present in the embryo and foetus, the earliest form of life during the first few weeks after fertilization of the female reproductive egg.  Because these stem cells are totally undifferentiated, it means that they have the potential (blue print) to develop to any other body cell under certain conditions.  Could they be the answer to diabetes when they are injected into the pancreas of a diabetic?  Could they cure paralysis when they are injected into the spinal cord of a paraplegic?  We do not presently have answers to these questions, but might discover the full potential of stem cells within the next decade.  For the time being, however, we must find optimal conditions for the production of stem cells.  If we take into consideration that the foetus develops in a bag of water (the amniotic sac), which brings the effect of the earth’s gravity down to about one-fifth (an object weighs about one-fifth of its normal mass when in water), it might be that stem cells in a test tube will develop better and faster under conditions of zero gravity, as exists in outer space. 

This space project might tell us if stem cells grow three dimensionally (to form for example an organ) in space, as compared to only in two dimensions (in a flat plane) in a laboratory on earth.  The project will also tell us if a zero gravity condition is beneficial to cell growth and development, or if it will slow down multiplication? Will zero gravity change the potential of the stem cell to change into another cell?

Will it alter the appearance and composition of the cell?

The early stages of life (the first seven days after fertilization) are free-living, and are not in a fluid filled bag.  This means that the early stage of embryonic development is exposed to the earth’s full gravitational force.  Will zero gravity conditions, as occurs in outer space, therefore be detrimental to very early life, or maybe also stimulate embryonic growth as would be the case in sea mammals?  In the distant future human and animal conception and embryonic and foetal growth might occur in outer space.  It would then be crucial to know if the lack of gravity in such a space journey would harm the development of the foetus in the uterus.

Future Prospects

This ESCD project during Mr. Shuttleworth’s space journey might just be the humble beginning of future research programs in reproduction under zero gravity conditions.  It might lead to prospective cooperative research projects with other institutions, and create further research opportunities for postgraduate students at this university.

If zero gravity, as found in outer space, is beneficial to reproduction, cell growth and fertility, conditions of minimal gravity can be created on earth to benefit the animal kingdom, including childless couples, endangered species and valuable animals.

Potential impact of the study and benefits to South Africa

Stem (primitive) cell research as replacement therapy for diseased and damaged body cells holds the key to the cure or alleviation of conditions like spinal cord and brain damage, diabetes, genetic diseases, cancer, damaged heart cells and many others.  Stem cells, as the most primitive and undifferentiated of all the body cells, have the ability, under certain conditions, to develop to any other body cell.  Stem cells can therefore play a major role in preventative and curative health programs for future generations, because they can replace damaged body cells. Finding optimal conditions for the culture and development of stem cells will therefore become increasingly more important.  If zero gravity proves to be beneficial to the development of stem cells, micro-gravity conditions for stem cell growth and differentiation can be established.  This can also put South Africa on the forefront of stem cell research in the world today.

The Gamete-SA project also deals with the development of animal embryos from a very early stage until after hatching of the embryo from its zona pellucida (surrounding capsule) in vitro (in an incubator).  As space programs progress, we might get to the point where human fertilisation takes place under zero gravity conditions, or after conception on earth, early embryonic development will take place in space.  This project will give us a very good insight into early embryonic development under conditions of zero gravity.  Will it speed up or slow down development?  Will it be detrimental to cell growth?  Will it supply answers to the large offspring syndrome (LOS) found in cloned animals, where the embryo is also cultured for seven days before transfer to a surrogate that will carry it to term?

We see the opportunity of the space research project as the ideal opportunity to conduct experiments that might give us answers to embryonic developmental problems in animals and man.  Can zero gravity conditions possibly be the answer for embryonic (during development in the uterus) and congenital (at birth) aberrations found in mammals?  The development of the embryo and foetus under conditions of zero gravity (compared to lowered gravity in the uterus) might give us answers to foetal developmental problems that influence so many newborn children and families in South Africa.  By following embryonic and foetal development under conditions of micro/zero gravity, we might be able to explain why certain congenital abnormalities develop during the growth of the foetus in the uterus.

It might also play a role in the existence of endangered species.  If somatic (body) and stem (undifferentiated) cells grow better under zero gravity conditions, scarce and valuable body cells from endangered wildlife species can be grown in a culture medium, stored and cloned under micro-gravity conditions in future to ensure the survival of many endangered species in our country.  This can play a crucial role in the eco-tourism industry of South Africa.

The project will be crucial for student training.  Conditions of total weightless are impossible to create on earth.  The space program is an unprecedented opportunity to do valuable research under zero gravity condition in a field of extreme importance for the future of the human race on earth.  Regenerative tissue and genetically changed organ transplants will play a big role in future health treatments.  This experiment might supply conditions and solutions to improve our understanding and techniques of stem cell development in the laboratory, information of major importance for further study of our post graduate students.

Scientific data of an international standard will be generated from this experiment.  It will be published in a scientific journal of repute. It will also place the University of Stellenbosch amongst the leaders in stem cell research in the world today.

Landing Countdown to 05:51 05 May

Landing Complete!

The Team
Mark Shuttleworth
Dale Cupido
Karen Sharwood
Lara Keytel
Danie Barry
Freddy Khan
Vaughan Oosthuizen
Ravi Naidoo
Vuyo Dwane
Richard Mills
Nicolette Cronje
Wayne Derman
Peter Ribton
Experiments (abstracts)
Stem cell
Research team
research team
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