Stem cells, both embryonic and adult, promise to revolutionize the practice of medicine in the future. In order to realize this potential, a number of hurdles must be overcome. Most importantly, the signaling mechanisms necessary to control the differentiation of stem cells into tissues of interest remain to be elucidated, and much of the present research on stem cells is focused on this goal. Nevertheless, it will also be essential to achieve large-scale expansion and, in many cases, assemble cells in 3D as transplantable tissues. To this end, microgravity analog bioreactors can play a significant role.

Microgravity bioreactors were originally conceived as a tool to study the cellular responses to microgravity. However, the technology can address some of the shortcomings of conventional cell culture systems; namely, the deficiency of mass transport in static culture and high mechanical shear forces in stirred systems. Unexpectedly, the conditions created in the vessel were ideal for 3D cell culture. Recently, investigators have demonstrated the capability of the microgravity bioreactors to expand hematopoietic stem cells compared to static culture, and facilitate the differentiation of umbilical cord stem cells into 3D liver aggregates.

Stem cells are capable of differentiating into functional cells. However, there are no reliable methods to induce the stem cells to form specific cells or to gain enough cells for transplantation, which limits their application in clinical therapy. The aim of this study is to select the best experimental setup to reach high proliferation levels by culturing these cells in a microgravity-based bioreactor. In typical cell culture, the cells sediment to the bottom surface of their container and propagate as a one-cell-layer sheet. Prevention of such sedimentation affords the freedom for self-assembly and the propagation of 3D tissue arrays.

Suspension of cells is easily achievable using stirred technologies. Unfortunately, in conventional bioreactors, stirring invokes deleterious forces that disrupt cell aggregation and results in cell death. First-generation rotating bioreactors provided rotation on the horizontal axis, which resulted in the suspension of cells without stirring, thus providing a suitable environment to propagate cells without sedimentation to a surface. The rotating-wall bioreactors did not provide a way to remove air bubbles that were causing shear and disrupting 3D cultures. Johnson Space Center successfully engineered the hydro-focusing bioreactor (HFB) that resolved the problem of removing the air bubbles from the fluid medium of NASA’s rotating-wall space bioreactors.

The HFB uses the principle of hydro-dynamic focusing that simultaneously produces a low-shear fluid culture environment and a variable hydrofocusing force that can control the movement, location, and removal of suspended cells, tissues, and air bubbles from the bioreactor. The HFB is a rotating, dome-shaped cell culture vessel with a centrally located sampling port and an internal viscous spinner. The vessel and spinner can rotate at different speeds either in the same or opposite directions. Rotation of the vessel and viscous interaction at the spinner generate a hydrofocusing force. Adjusting the differential rotation rate between vessel and spinner controls the magnitude of the force.

This work was done by Pier Paolo Claudio and Jagan Valluri of Goddard Space Flight Center. GSC-15807-1