Academics & Research

UH to study effects of space travel on immune system

The human immune system works to keep the body healthy if it is working properly, but for an astronaut, that system of fighting viruses can be compromised by traveling into outer space.



The UH Department of Health and Human Performance has partnered with NASA to help understand why this happens in a 14-month program that will analyze the effects of long duration space flight on astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

“It is important to determine whether or not long-duration spaceflight impairs immunity before exploration class spaceflight missions — i.e., to Mars or an asteroid — can be considered,” said Rickie Simpson, principle investigator for the program and UH assistant professor in exercise and immunology.

To do this, Simpson said that the team will collect blood, urine and saliva samples from the astronauts before they travel to space, while they are on the ISS and for about six months when they return.

“The samples collected on the space station will be returned to Earth via the Soyuz space vehicle so that we may analyze the samples in our lab at UH,” Simpson said.

Simpson said he and his team will be using the samples to measure antimicrobial proteins that are crucial for the body’s defense against microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses and fungi. He also said they will be measuring and assessing the role of specific immune cells in the blood.

“We are particularly interested in Natural Killer Cells, which are important cells of the immune system in the identification and destruction of virally infected and cancerous cells,” Simpson said.

The goal is for the team to measure how spaceflight affects the facility of these cells to do their job within the immune response.

“We anticipate that long-duration spaceflight will cause alterations to the immune system but whether or not these will manifest as an increased clinical risk among crewmembers remains to be determined,” Simpson said.

Mark Clarke, Thomas Lowder and Dan O’Connor will assist Simpson in heading the research. Post-doctoral scientist Guillaume Spielmann and doctoral candidates Hawley Kunz and Austin Bigley are also involved in the project.

The research team is completed by Brian Crucian, an immunologist at NASA Johnson Space Center, and Duane Pierson and Satish Mehta, microbiologists at NASA Johnson Space Center.

“I am very excited to be involved in this project,” Kunz said. “It is almost surreal to be able to be a part of the process of exploring space and its effects on humans and to be able to analyze samples that have been in space.”

Crucian says NASA expects the study to be a valuable tool in making changes for future missions.

“We are excited about Dr. Simpsons flight study onboard ISS, as it will provide novel information regarding human physiology during spaceflight,” Crucian said. “Currently NASA is trying to determine any and all medical risks for exploration-class missions.”

“The information from the UH study will provide new information to help NASA assess crew risk related to the function of the immune system. Countermeasures for immunity may be as simple as nutritional supplementation or as complicated as pharmacological intervention.”

Simpson said that their findings could lead to many changes for the future of spaceflight and he hopes that they will ultimately lower the health risks for crew members.

“If the integrity of the immune system is compromised during spaceflight then it is likely that an adverse clinical event may occur,” Simpson said.

“This would have an immediate impact on the mission and may jeopardize the health of the crew and the likelihood of mission success. If we find that there is a risk to the health of the crew due to altered immunity then it would allow us to develop countermeasures that help mitigate these risks.”

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