The use of stem cell technology could mean the difference between life and death on any attempt to travel beyond the planet Earth to Mars.
That’s the opinion of one of the UK’s leading stem cell storage and diagnostics companies, which says that advanced medical techniques will be required to cope with the rigours of interplanetary space.
UK based stem cell storage company StemProtect.co.uk says that a trip to Mars may only seem “just around the corner” in galactic terms, but it’s highly possible that exposure to radiation along the way could lead to the astronauts developing leukaemia and other cancers even before they arrived.
This means that future travellers will have to be “immunised” before they leave Earth.
“There was an article in The Times suggesting that elephants would make ideal Martian travellers because they’d be largely immune to the radiation,” says Stem Protect spokesperson Mark Hall: “But those laughing at the ridiculous-sounding headline completely missed the point – the fact is that scientists are already working on ways of getting humans there and back alive.”
“The first human to walk on Mars may not even be born yet – but that’s an advantage when it comes to preparing them for the trip,” he says.
Hall points to recent research that highlights the bad news faced by future space travellers: radiation in deep space that could increase the risk of leukaemia, while long-term exposure to microgravity may leave astronauts open to infection.
The 3 year round trip to Mars would affect humans at the stem cell level, leaving them with a drastically lowered immune system, NASA-funded scientists say. And NASA’s own findings say that stem cells may be crucial to the future of space travel, particularly how they respond in a low-gravity environment.
Amid all the challenges the research demonstrated, one finding may be key: “Stem cells flown in space and then cultured back on Earth showed greater stemness (the ability to self-renew and generate any cell type), changing more readily upon induction, for instance, into specialised cardiac muscle cell colonies.”
That means space-engineered stem cells come back stronger when reintroduced into the Earth’s gravity, and there may be future applications related to this finding.
These huge challenges mean one thing, says Mark Hall: “And that’s preparing an astronaut for the journey quite literally at the stem cell level. That means working with the best and most effective stem cells available to the patient – those harvested from the umbilical cord at birth.”
That means, he says, that it’s likely that the first person to walk on Mars will be ideally selected from the growing group of people whose parents took the step to store their child’s stem cells at birth.
It also means that the therapies required to immunise humans to space travel are still being researched. And with most space-based science, this research can only mean huge benefits to mankind back down on Earth when it comes to fighting otherwise deadly conditions and diseases.
But that doesn’t mean the birth of a genetically engineered super human. It means somebody who has been prepared for a dangerous trip through carefully research gene therapy, he says.
“We wince at the thought of genetically engineered humans,” says Hall, “And we’re not going to create a Khan from Star Trek specifically to get to another planet.”
“Getting humans to Mars and beyond will be both expensive and dangerous,” StemProtect.co.uk ‘s Mark Hall says. “But the scientific by-products – such as huge leaps in stem cell medicine – will benefit humanity for centuries to come.”