- Associated Press - Saturday, May 6, 2017

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) - When NASA astronaut Kate Rubins talked in Huntsville about her favorite experiment aboard the International Space Station, her choice didn’t take long to reach the ears of a young man who grew up in a north Alabama rocket city.

Rubins‘ favorite experiment turned out to be his experiment. “Oh, man,” Arun Sharma said last week. “It blows my mind.”

The experiment involved growing heart cells in space, and Rubins was the astronaut in charge. “Those were my babies,” she said in an April press conference at the Marshall Space Flight Center. “I pulled them out and looked at them in a microscope every week, and it was a really exciting time both on the ground and up in orbit when we got to pull out those cell cultures and look at beating heart cells.”

It was exciting partly because the check-in proved the cells were still beating in their special growth medium. That medium had to be created because human cells need liquid around them to grow on Earth. In space, liquid floats and won’t support experimental heart cell growth.

“Every time I looked at them, I’m like, ‘I hope they’re OK,’” Rubins said. “All the crew would gather around, and the cosmonauts would come down from the Russian segment. Everybody would look at these heart cells.”

The experiment that was interesting enough to bring cosmonauts across the space station came from a team including 26-year-old Sharma, who grew up in the Rocket City. He read Rubins‘ comments in Boston, where he’s now a research fellow at Harvard Medical School after earning a PhD at Stanford and an undergraduate degree at Duke University.

The beating heart cells orbited Earth for a month in an experiment designed to see if they could survive, how they would change in space, and whether they would return to normal once back on Earth.

“I think there’s a lot of application here,” Sharma said. “We’re going to be going deeper into the Solar System, and we want to know how the human body actually functions long term in space.”

The human heart and the way it works has fascinated Sharma since his days at Duke. Unlike other organs such as the liver that can regenerate after injury, the heart doesn’t grow back well, he said.

“And that’s a huge problem,” Sharma said. “If you have a heart attack at whatever age, your heart function is reduced pretty much for the rest of your life in a lot of cases.”

Sharma wants to find ways to repair a damaged heart. “A lot of us have relatives and know people who have gone through cardiovascular disease. I have examples in my family, as well.”

The problem excited and challenged Sharma when he first began to think about it. His explanation is a classic expression of how science advances.

“I saw an issue. I saw a problem that I wanted to solve,” Sharma said. “There’s a bunch of advances in the stem cell field I also wanted to pick up. And so I thought the intersection of those two fields would be a really exciting opportunity for me as a scientist.”

Back on Earth after Rubins‘ mission, the heart cells are being analyzed. Early results suggest they beat differently in space, but returned to normal rhythm when they came back home. How they might have changed genetically is still being studied.

Sharma was born in India, but he moved to Huntsville in 1992 as a small child when his father was hired as a professor of physics at Alabama A&M; University. He graduated from Grissom High School in 2008.

“I didn’t go to Space Camp, and I’m still a little bit upset about that,” Sharma said. “I lived in Huntsville 16 years and didn’t go. I volunteered at the (U.S. Space & Rocket Center) throughout high school, and that was an incredible experience. I went there countless times.”

What’s next for Sharma? He enjoys academia and likes the idea of teaching and mentoring students. But the heart cell experiment also has him thinking about a future elsewhere.

“Just because this project was so incredibly rewarding and was such an exciting thing to be a part of,” he said. “I’m considering what are my opportunities in space science, as well. How can I stay a part of the intersection of space science and biology.”

And, yes, he’s thinking about another logical step.

“Down the road, I would love to apply for the astronaut programs,” Sharma said. “Why not? I might as well give it a shot. It’d just be a dream come true. It’s a long-shot, definitely, but being a kid from Huntsville, that’s the dream, right?”


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