Boise State engineers given the opportunity to send stem cell research into space

Boise State engineers have been awarded $315,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to launch stem cell research into space. 

Alexander Regner, master’s student in materials science engineering, has been working on stem cell research for nearly three years. Through Regner’s research, he has studied the health and maintenance of bone and bone marrow. 

As you exercise and move, your bone marrow stimulates cells, which is a vital part of maintaining health, according to Regner.  

“That’s why exercise is so good for you. We know all of this contributes to health and maintenance, but we don’t actually know what it looks like mechanically to these cells,” Regner said.

Photo by Martin Lopez

Regner and his associates Gunes Uzer, assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering, and Aykut Satici, assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering, have created a model to mimic the bone marrow mechanical environment and analyze what kind of mechanical environment is causing the cells to react in certain ways. 

Regner uses a computer simulation that matches a 3D printed physical sample. This allows Regner to understand what the mechanical environment looks like so they can correlate the mechanical environment to the cellular response. 

Through this research, Regner asks the big question, “is there a different mechanical environment generated due to changes in bone architecture?” 

Gunes and Satici looked at Regner’s research and wanted to bring it to a bigger audience. Their new goal was to determine how stem cell research can benefit Earth. According to Gunes, space travel tends to produce tissue types and cell behavior that is similar to aging. This aging happens over a matter of weeks in space, as opposed to a matter of years on Earth. 

“We take one of these bone cells and we age them for a year or two. But obviously, these bones have a shelf life,” Gunes said. “Maybe we can do that in space in three weeks and do the experiment in space. Maybe we can learn more about how the bone mechanical environment contributes to the aging process. That’s really the project, take Alex’s work and send it to space.”

Satici’s contribution to this research is from a different perspective, robotics. According to Satici, there needs to be mechanical vibrations applied to particular cells. To accomplish this, there needs to be a robotic mechanism to perform that motion in a consistent matter.

Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) holds a subcontract with the International Space Station along with the National Science Foundation (NSF). Each year, they ask the question, “what type of research can we perform in space that can teach us something about Earth and improve advanced science on Earth?” 

Regner, Gunes and Satici argued that they cannot properly age experiments on Earth, and proposed that space could be a good platform for their research. They wrote a grant proposal for their research, what they have done in the past, what they plan to do and who is a part of the research team. 

Regner, Gunes and Satici also work closely with the University of Texas, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Space Tango to complete this research. 

Through this extensive research, Regner, Satici and Gunes emphasize the importance of working hard to accomplish one’s goals.  

“Just because it’s fun to do, doesn’t mean you are going to learn it. You have to persevere and do the dirty work. Try to improve yourself with any resources you can get,” Satici said.

Regner advocates for students to continuously work hard to help solve modern problems. There are a lot of job opportunities in the STEM field, and many jobs that may not require a STEM background at all, like politics. 

“A lot of our modern problems we are dealing with are multidisciplinary things. It requires the involvement of everyone. Space flight, for example, you need people to understand not only the mechanics but make sure we’re safe while we’re doing it,” Regner said. “[There are] a lot of problems we are facing in the middle age. If you’re interested in helping solve them, there are so many different opportunities to get involved. If you want to go into politics, we need people to advocate for science in politics to make sure that we have adequate funding and focused goals for where we are going and what we are doing.”

Gunes hopes students who want to get involved and achieve their goals will start with volunteer work.

“Go to a lab you’re interested in and say ‘Hey, I want to do volunteering involving research.’ Before you know it you start getting your masters, your Ph.D., and then you become a scientist. If you’re interested in [science] then stop thinking about it and do it,” Gunes said.

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