Space Station Cell Study Seeks Causes of Major Diseases

ISS — International Space Station logo.

August 1, 2019

High above the Earth, researchers are conducting a first-of-its-kind study to help patients with Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis on the planet below. The International Space Station experiment is looking for what triggers these diseases by studying how nerve and immune brain cells interact.

The experiment, carried to the space station aboard the SpaceX CRS-18 cargo flight, will look at what is causing damage to the nervous system that is common in both illnesses and reveal how living in space affects similar cells in healthy astronauts.

Image above: Dopaminergic neurons growing in a culture dish (20x magnification). A skin biopsy from a patient with Parkinson’s disease was reprogrammed into induced pluripotent stem cells. The stem cells were then differentiated into dopaminergic neurons (green), the same cells that are lost in Parkinson’s disease patients. Work is under way to use these cells as a replacement for lost neurons as a treatment for the disease. Image courtesy of Aspen Neuroscience.

The study is led by stem cell expert Andres Bratt-Leal of Aspen Neuroscience in La Jolla, California, and Valentina Fossati, a multiple sclerosis researcher with the New York Stem Foundation Research Institute in New York.

“This is the first time anyone is researching the effects of microgravity and spaceflight on such cells,” said Bratt-Leal. “These cells are hard to study in a lab because of the way gravity influences them. The cool part is now we can do it in space!”

Neuron killers

Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis are neurodegenerative illnesses that damage the brain and central nervous system. The researchers suspect this damage may be the result of a glitch in the body’s immune system. NASA is interested in how spaceflight changes the immune system since some astronauts experience strange effects following missions, including temporary activation of dormant viruses.

To learn more, Bratt-Leal and Fossati are focusing on the types of cells in the brain that seem to play key roles in the onset of both diseases. The first types are neurons and the cells that create them, which go on to form the body’s nerve network and allow the brain to monitor and control it. The second are microglia: immune cells that patrol the brain and try to defend the neurons from threatening invaders.

“The microglia are found in every part of the brain, and it’s really starting to look like neurodegenerative illnesses develop because the cells begin behaving improperly or overreacting,” said Fossati. “Misbehaving microglia may contribute to killing the neurons.”

A new way to make old cells

To find out whether that is the case, the researchers need to study the growth of neurons and microglia from people with the diseases and compare them to healthy people of the same age. Since these cells are located within the brain, they cannot be extracted safely.

Bratt-Leal and Fossati found another way, harnessing a new stem cell technology called “induced pluripotent stem cells” to make neurons and microglia from the skin cells of patients and healthy people in laboratories.

Space for cells

Bratt-Leal and Fossati launched newly created diseased and healthy cells into space to observe them away from the heavy influence of Earth’s gravity.

“We know that forces can influence the behavior of cells by changing aspects such as their shape. So, what happens when you remove gravity?” said Bratt-Leal. “How the cells respond will tell us new things about how they function.”

The cells are now aboard the space station, living inside a CubeLab developed by Space Tango, a company that develops equipment for microgravity research. The CubeLab is approximately the size of a small shoebox.

Image above: Microglia cells growing in a culture dish (63x magnification). Microglia are the immune cells of the brain and play a role that is not fully understood in neurodegenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis. The cells shown here were differentiated from induced pluripotent stem cells that were made from a patient’s skin biopsy. Image courtesy of New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) Research Institute.

Inside the CubeLab is a camera to watch the experiment as well as a pair of 96-chamber containers holding the cells. One “well plate” holds the cells of a Parkinson’s patient and a healthy person of similar age. The second plate contains the cells of a multiple sclerosis patient and an age-matched healthy donor. A tubing and pump system automatically provides liquid food to the cells inside their chambers. 

Over the course of 30 days, Bratt-Leal and Fossati can watch remotely to see how the neuron cells organize into balls, called “organoids,” and how the microglia cells respond to and infiltrate them. After a month, the cells will be returned to Earth, where researchers plan to examine their shape and arrangement and test their DNA to see if microgravity and space radiation exposure altered their gene expression.

The results of the research ultimately could help scientists identify new ways to treat Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. Also, discovering the way nerve cells are affected by microgravity and radiation may lead to improved methods for protecting astronauts in space, particularly on long-duration missions.

Related links:

Nerve and immune brain cells interact: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/explorer/Investigation.html?#id=7976

Space Tango: https://spacetango.com/

Space Station Research and Technology: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/index.html

International Space Station (ISS): https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Michael Johnson/JSC/International Space Station Program Science Office/Charlie Plain.

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Excavations bring to light traces of earthquake at Himera

In the area of the Piano del Tamburino, an area of the ancient Greek colony of Himera on the north coast of Sicily, two interesting sacred areas have been brought to light in the last eight years.

Excavations bring to light traces of earthquake at Himera
Credit: Parco di Himera

The excavation concentrated on one of the sacred areas, characterized by a vast and very interesting open space of over 100 square metres with three altars and numerous votive depositions consisting mostly of small vases used during ceremonies: this is the heart of the sanctuary where the Himerians held their festivals, rituals and other activities related to the sacred world.
The open space was surrounded by two buildings, to which a third has now been added, and which will be further investigated in future excavations.

Excavations bring to light traces of earthquake at Himera
Credit: Parco di Himera

The novelty of this year is the discovery of traces of a violent earthquake that seems to have taken place in the late Archaic period. Written sources do not tell mention the episode. The archaeological findings therefore indicate a possible important episode in the life of the city of Himera, of which we were absolutely not aware, a dramatic event that must have profoundly marked its inhabitants and the image of the city. Life in the sacred area, of which the building in question was part, resumed after the earthquake and continued until the destruction of Himera by the Carthaginians in 409 BC.
The excavation, led by Prof. Elena Mango of the University of Bern, was attended by an international team of 13 people, professors (Prof. J.-R. Gisler, museum), assistants (Marcella Boglione, Aleksandra Mistireki), students from the Universities of Bern and Palermo, illustrators (Roberta Sperandeo, Termini Imerese, Ulrike Koy-Seemann, University of Tubingen), a numismatist-archaeologist (Christian Weiss, University of Bern) and a photographer (Adriana Urango, University of Bern).

Excavations bring to light traces of earthquake at Himera
Credit: Parco di Himera

The archaeological investigations are the result of an agreement, duly authorized by the Regional Department of Cultural Heritage, established with the University of Bern by the Himera Park and, subsequently, by the Palermo Regional Department for Archaeological Parks and Museums. A fruitful collaboration that has given results of extraordinary interest for the understanding of the urban planning and history of the Greek colony, results that add to the important discoveries of the last decade in the western necropolis of the colony of Chalkidiki and that make Himera one of the most important archaeological realities of the entire island.

Source: Teletermini [trsl. TANN, August 01, 2019]

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Spanish archaeologists discover largest Iberian-era building known to date

In the middle of the Bronze Age, sometime between 2100 and 1500 BC, a group of settlers took up residence on a craggy hill outside what is now the village of Garcinarro, in Spain’s Cuenca province. Around 400 BC, they were sent packing by the Iberians, who in turn were swept aside by the Romans; and they, by the Visigoths. But instead of destroying the evidence of the culture that preceded them, each of these distinct peoples simply built on top of it.

Spanish archaeologists discover largest Iberian-era building known to date
The building sits atop a hill with a sheer cliff protecting it on one side
[Credit: Victor Saina/El Pais]

As a result, as experts point out, this eight-hectare archaeological site known as La Cava is “a series of time capsules.” When archaeologists opened it, they found the largest Iberian building known to date, complete with three rooms more than three meters high.
“There’s nothing like it that we know of, but we’re still investigating,” says Miguel Ángel Valero, professor of ancient history at the University of Castilla-La Mancha. “What we usually find in these kinds of digs are the remains of walls made of stone or adobe, which every now and again rise above a meter high.”

Mar Juzgado, an archaeologist on Valero’s team, adds, “We don’t know what we are going to find at this site, because there is nothing similar to compare it with.”

Spanish archaeologists discover largest Iberian-era building known to date
View of the room divided and leading directly to a cliff with more than 60 metres drop
[Credit: Victor Saina/El Pais]
Spanish archaeologists discover largest Iberian-era building known to date
The so-called room C of the building had a dividing wall on which the roof of the building was anchored
[Credit: Victor Saina/El Pais]
Spanish archaeologists discover largest Iberian-era building known to date
In the foreground the hearth of the central room of the Iberian building
[Credit: Victor Saina/El Pais]
Spanish archaeologists discover largest Iberian-era building known to date
The remains of walls made with stones or adobes rarely exceed the height metre
[Credit: Victor Saina/El Pais]

At the start of this decade, the mayor of Garcinarro at the time, Antonio Fernández Odene, was convinced there was an archaeological treasure to be found on the outskirts of town, and he badgered the authorities about it. His words fell on deaf ears, however, until Valero noticed something odd on the archaeological map – a secret document signaling possible digs in an area. Archaeologists started working here in 2014, and Valero was rewarded with evidence of a mishmash of cultures that had settled strategically at a central spot for north-south communications in the peninsula, up on a cliff more than 60 meters high.
Besides a “unique building” that measures 70 square meters, the complex includes the remains of a Bronze Age settlement, a rampart from that period whose height is yet to be established, and an area covered with hundreds of small holes on a rocky surface, which could have been made for decorative or spiritual purposes. There is also a 70-meter long gallery, which is seven meters deep, dug out of the rock by the pre-Roman settlers, and dozens of coves, which would have been occupied by hermits during the Visigoth era.

Spanish archaeologists discover largest Iberian-era building known to date
Archaeologist Mar Jurado inspects the niches that surround the interior of one of the three rooms
of the «singular building» [Credit: Victor Saina/El Pais]
Spanish archaeologists discover largest Iberian-era building known to date
Miguel Ángel Valero shows the traces of dwellings from the Iron Age settlement that
was built over the hillock [Credit: Victor Saina/El Pais]
Spanish archaeologists discover largest Iberian-era building known to date
Hundreds of cup marks cover a stone area of the La Cava deposit. They were drilled for magical
or decorative purposes [Credit: Victor Saina/El Pais]
Spanish archaeologists discover largest Iberian-era building known to date
Valero approaches the end of the 70-metre-long ravine that the Iberians dug into the rock of the hill
[Credit: Victor Saina/El Pais]
Spanish archaeologists discover largest Iberian-era building known to date
The professor shows one of the rock-carved basins found inside the ravine
[Credit: Victor Saina/El Pais]

While the archaeologists are still unable to establish the use of the unique building itself, there are a number of theories, one of which is that it served as a temple; another, that it was a space for storage and product handling.
One of the building’s three rooms is itself divided into two areas. The middle room is accessed by a door made from rock that would have had a lintel, while its southern wall had a large recess more than a meter high. It is possible that the lintel was punctuated by holes to allow the sun rays to shine on the alcove, where the Iberians may have placed a divinity figure.

Spanish archaeologists discover largest Iberian-era building known to date
Archaeologists have already managed to remove more than one metre of earth from the ravine open on the rock,
the purpose of which is still unknown [Credit: Victor Saina/El Pais]
Spanish archaeologists discover largest Iberian-era building known to date
The director of the excavations, Miguel Ángel Valero, inside one of the Visigothic hermitages
surrounding the La Cava site [Credit: Victor Saina/El Pais]
Spanish archaeologists discover largest Iberian-era building known to date
Interior of a Roman cistern located next to the Vega river and the La Cava deposit
[Credit: Victor Saina/El Pais]
Spanish archaeologists discover largest Iberian-era building known to date
Interior of one of the caves where the hermits prayed during the Visigothic period
[Credit: Victor Saina/El Pais]
Spanish archaeologists discover largest Iberian-era building known to date
Visigothic cross carved next to one of the caves inhabited by the hermits in the current
municipality of Garcinarro [Credit: Victor Saina/El Pais]

What is surprising is that the sun would only touch this point at the end of the month of August – some time away from the summer and winter solstices, which would set it apart from all other known sundials. “It’s a mystery because the end of August does not coincide with any agricultural season,” says Valero. “Why would they want to mark this date?”
It is possible that some kind of earthquake led to the lintel falling over the cliff that protects the building on the north side, but the archaeologists are confident they will find it. The rooms are lined with wall recesses and basins, and on the floors it is still possible to detect evidence of hearths and even the imprints of tables. Archaeologists have also come across ceramics, brooches and tools such as hammers and picks from the Iberian era, fragments of terra sigillata tableware from the Roman era, and metal pieces from the Visigoths.

The archaeological treasures from all these periods have survived thanks to the use that shepherds made of the site for their sheep. The mysterious 70-meter gallery, for example, was a decent place to keep dozens of animals. And these animals, with their waste, helped to conserve the remains that the Iberians, Romans and Visigoths had left over a period of 25 centuries.

Author: Vicente G. Olaya; trsl. Heather Galloway | Source: El Pais [August 01, 2019]

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