Sierra Space, UC San Diego Partner to Develop the First Stem Cell Research Institute in Space

Agreement Expands UC San Diego’s Sanford Stem Cell Institute into an Earth-Space Research Complex Aboard Orbital Reef Space Station

LOUISVILLE, Colo.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Sierra Space, a leading commercial space company at the forefront of building the future of space transportation and infrastructure for low-Earth orbit (LEO) commercialization, and University of California San Diego, one of the world’s top 15 research universities and a leader in microgravity research, have formed a new agreement with the goal of defining the future of human health care research in space.

In a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two organizations, Sierra Space and UC San Diego agreed to collaborate on Orbital Reef, the first commercial space station in LEO, to expand the university’s Integrated Space Stem Cell Orbital Research (ISSCOR) program, which is currently operational on the International Space Station (ISS). Together they will help define and shape the future of biotech and biopharma research and development in microgravity.

“This agreement with UC San Diego is a major breakthrough in human health care research conducted in space and signals the beginning of a new era of discovery,” said Tom Vice, Sierra Space CEO. “Through our collaboration, the highly impactful work that researchers are already doing on the International Space Station today can expand and deliver even greater impact for humanity. As the ISS completes its time in service, UC San Diego will now have a place to grow and expand its vital research in biotech and biopharma with full, on-orbit biomanufacturing and biofabrication centers to foster breakthrough advancements and products in medical science that will benefit all life on Earth.”

“Microgravity and radiation exposure in low-Earth orbit offers a unique opportunity to study stem cell aging and pre-cancer development in a compressed time frame in a manner that is unavailable on Earth,” said Catriona Jamieson, MD, PhD, a stem cell biologist, hematologist and director of the new UC San Diego Sanford Stem Cell Institute, funded with a $150 million gift from philanthropist T. Denny Sanford.

“In collaboration with NASA, our Integrated Space Stem Cell Orbital Research team has launched six missions carrying stem cells and stem cell-derived organoids into LEO. We are learning things that we never could under normal gravity; knowledge that can elevate the search for new pre-cancer diagnostics and therapeutics that eradicate cancer at its earliest stages into addition to a broad array of degenerative diseases that arise as a result of stem cell dysfunction.”

UC San Diego will provide input to Sierra Space on the design and concept of operations for providing new, state-of-the-art biomanufacturing, biofabrication and related in-space laboratory capabilities and services to industry, academia and government researchers. The university will also participate in a Sierra Space-led in-space biomanufacturing research consortium of industry, academia, philanthropic and government researchers that will focus on R&D objectives, priorities and technical requirements.

Sierra Space will lead the development, launch and deployment of space habitats to establish the necessary infrastructure for UC San Diego and other partners to conduct microgravity research and in-space manufacturing. The company’s Dream Chaser® spacecraft, the world’s only winged commercial spaceplane, will provide transportation to LEO, while its Large Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE™) modules will offer ample habitable spaces in which to live and work on orbit.

Sierra Space recently made two key appointments to lead development of research capabilities for future LEO commercialization. Dr. Jonathan Volk, Senior Manager of In-Space Manufacturing and Advanced Materials joined the company from Space Commerce Matters where he was the Director of Commercialization Strategies. Prior to this role, Volk was the Commercial Innovation Manager for Physical and Materials Science at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which managed the U.S. National Laboratory on the ISS. Dr. Marc Giulianotti takes on the role of Senior Manager, In-Space Biomanufacturing, joining Sierra Space from his role as Director of Science and Technology with the ISS U.S. National Laboratory. Dr. Giulianotti also has more than 20 years working in early drug discovery efforts at the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies. Both Volk and Giulianotti will focus on advancing the transformative research and technologies in the commercial space destinations of the future.

About Sierra Space

Sierra Space (www.sierraspace.com) is a leading commercial space company at the forefront of innovation and the commercialization of space. Sierra Space is building platforms in space to benefit life on Earth. The company is in the latter stages of doubling its headcount, with large presences in Colorado, Florida and Wisconsin. Significant investors in Sierra Space include General Atlantic, Coatue, and Moore Strategic Ventures.

With more than 30 years and 500 missions of space flight heritage, Sierra Space is enabling the future of space transportation with Dream Chaser®, the world’s only winged commercial spaceplane. Under construction at its Colorado headquarters and expected to launch in 2023 on the first of a series of NASA missions to the International Space Station, Dream Chaser® can safely carry cargo – and eventually crew – to on-orbit destinations, returning to land on compatible commercial airport runways worldwide. Sierra Space is also building an array of in-space destinations for low-Earth orbit (LEO) commercialization including the LIFE™ (Large Integrated Flexible Environment) habitat at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a three-story commercial habitation and science platform designed for LEO. Both Dream Chaser® and LIFE™ are central components to Orbital Reef, a mixed-use business park in LEO being developed by principal partners Sierra Space and Blue Origin, which is expected to be operational by 2027.

About UC San Diego’s Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center

Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center (Sanford Center) is among the University’s most highly visible and top priority interdisciplinary and multi-institutional programs. Sanford Center provides essential physical and human resources needed to leverage stem cell research currently being conducted at UC San Diego. Due to the complexity of regenerative medicine projects and substantial institutional investment, on a daily basis Sanford Center personnel works with a large variety of departments in Health Sciences, Health System, and the school of engineering.

As part of UC San Diego Health, Sanford Center motivates University-wide change and sustainability, focusing on creating the structure under which various innovative regenerative medicine units and initiatives are developed. Sanford Center has led several successful and highly visible interdisciplinary faculty recruitments, committing to over $48M towards faculty start-up, retention, and research funds for over 25 faculty members. Sanford Center also played a pivotal role in securing over $77M of grants from California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), awarded respectively to dept. of Bioengineering, Pediatrics, Cellular & Molecular Medicine, Medicine, Neurosciences, and Sanford Center.


Alex Walker

Sierra Space

(303) 803-2297


Eric Becker

ICR for Sierra Space

(303) 638-3469


Scott LaFee

UC San Diego

(858) 249-0456



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