Spaceflight Activates Protein Kinase C Alpha Signaling and Modifies the Developmental Stage of Human Neonatal Cardiovascular Progenitor Cells

Stem Cells Dev. 2018 Jun 15;27(12):805-818. doi: 10.1089/scd.2017.0263. Epub 2018 Feb 12.


Spaceflight impacts cardiovascular function in astronauts; however, its impact on cardiac development and the stem cells that form the basis for cardiac repair is unknown. Accordingly, further research is needed to uncover the potential relevance of such changes to human health. Using simulated microgravity (SMG) generated by two-dimensional clinorotation and culture aboard the International Space Station (ISS), we assessed the effects of mechanical unloading on human neonatal cardiovascular progenitor cell (CPC) developmental properties and signaling. Following 6-7 days of SMG and 12 days of ISS culture, we analyzed changes in gene expression. Both environments induced the expression of genes that are typically associated with an earlier state of cardiovascular development. To understand the mechanism by which such changes occurred, we assessed the expression of mechanosensitive small RhoGTPases in SMG-cultured CPCs and observed decreased levels of RHOA and CDC42. Given the effect of these molecules on intracellular calcium levels, we evaluated changes in noncanonical Wnt/calcium signaling. After 6-7 days under SMG, CPCs exhibited elevated levels of WNT5A and PRKCA. Similarly, ISS-cultured CPCs exhibited elevated levels of calcium handling and signaling genes, which corresponded to protein kinase C alpha (PKCα), a calcium-dependent protein kinase, activation after 30 days. Akt was activated, whereas phosphorylated extracellular signal-regulated kinase levels were unchanged. To explore the effect of calcium induction in neonatal CPCs, we activated PKCα using hWnt5a treatment on Earth. Subsequently, early cardiovascular developmental marker levels were elevated. Transcripts induced by SMG and hWnt5a-treatment are expressed within the sinoatrial node, which may represent embryonic myocardium maintained in its primitive state. Calcium signaling is sensitive to mechanical unloading and directs CPC developmental properties. Further research both in space and on Earth may help refine the use of CPCs in stem cell-based therapies and highlight the molecular events of development.

Keywords: calcium; cardiovascular progenitor cell; microgravity; protein kinase C alpha; simulated microgravity; small RhoGTPase.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Myocardium / enzymology
  • Myocytes, Cardiac / enzymology*
  • Protein Kinase C-alpha / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction*
  • Space Flight*
  • Stem Cells / enzymology*
  • Weightlessness Simulation*


  • PRKCA protein, human
  • Protein Kinase C-alpha