The National Institute of Health (NIH) has awarded the first new grants for biomedical research on the International Space Station (ISS). The grants are part of an initiative between NIH and NASA to spur research on health issues in microgravity.
Research has shown that bacteria and microorganisms can become more virulent in space. This is worrisome for space agencies planning long manned missions. But on the flip side such experiments could give microbiologists new insights into bacteria like Salmonella (studied in space in 2007) that may lead to new therapies for infections on Earth. Another space-related health issue researchers have been trying to better understand is how weightlessness affects bone loss, which is experienced by astronauts.
“BioMed-ISS offers a novel opportunity for gaining scientific insights that would not otherwise be possible through ground-based means,” said Stephen I. Katz, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, and NIH liaison to NASA, in a press release. “The beauty of this initiative is that it offers an unprecedented opportunity for benefitting human health on earth, while leveraging the American public’s investment in the ISS.”
According to the release,
Scientists will conduct their experiments under a two-stage mechanism. The first is a ground-based preparatory phase to allow investigators to meet select milestones and technical requirements. The second is an ISS experimental phase that will include preparing the experiments for launch, working with astronauts to conduct them on the ISS, and performing subsequent data analyses on Earth.
The first round of awards were granted to,
Paola Divieti, M.D., Ph.D., Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, Boston: Weight-bearing activities contribute to the development and maintenance of bone mass, while weightlessness and immobility – as experienced by the astronauts and bedridden and immobilized patients – can result in bone loss and a weakened skeleton. Osteocytes, the most common type of bone cell, are believed to have gravity-sensing abilities. These cells play a key role in bone remodeling, a process that is vital to skeletal health. In studying osteocytes in a gravity-free environment, Divieti aims to uncover new therapeutic targets for osteoporosis and related bone diseases.
Millie Hughes-Fulford, Ph.D., Northern California Institute for Research and Education, San Francisco: The immune system, which protects the body against foreign substances, is suppressed in space. A reduction in the immune response also occurs in the elderly, who, like the astronauts, are at increased risk for infection. As a former astronaut, Hughes-Fulford aims to apply lessons learned from studies of immune cells in microgravity to a new model for investigating the loss of immune response in older women and men.
Declan McCole, Ph.D., University of California, San Diego: Excessive alcohol use is a leading lifestyle-related cause of death in the United States. A major factor in alcohol-related disease stems from the ability of alcohol to compromise the natural barrier function of cells in the gastrointestinal tract, increasing the movement of toxins from the intestines to other organs in the body. Using microgravity three-dimensional cell culture models, McCole plans to generate insights regarding the barrier properties of the intestines, and to explore how the absence of gravity affects alcohol’s ability to diminish this barrier.