News / Science & Technology

Study: Immune System Weakens in Space

Mission specialist Rex Walheim performs checks of the Cell Culture Module aboard the US space shuttle Atlantis in 2011. (NASA)
Mission specialist Rex Walheim performs checks of the Cell Culture Module aboard the US space shuttle Atlantis in 2011. (NASA)
Rosanne Skirble
New research suggests even brief forays into space can weaken the immune systems of astronauts.  

During the final flight of the US space shuttle Atlantis in the summer of 2011, one of the most important pieces of scientific cargo on board was a medical experiment designed to test how the human immune system responds to stress and disease in the microgravity conditions of Earth orbit.

The experiment contained samples of living human cells housed in a sterile, temperature-controlled module. Astronauts pushed a button to infect the cells with a common bacterial toxin that causes sepsis, a severe and potentially lethal skin infection.  

Cells in space didn't fight infection

The module spent two weeks in space and researchers at the U.S. Army Medical Command have spent the past two years analyzing the data.

Human Immune System Weakens in Space
Human Immune System Weakens in Spacei
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

They compared that data with the results of a parallel experiment conducted on Earth at the same time, under normal gravity conditions.

The same cell line was used to minimize variation between the two experiments.

“We did a micro-array analysis, where we screen 30,000 to 40,000 genes at a time,” said Rasha Hammamieh, deputy director of the Integrative Systems Biology Program at the Medical Command and lead scientist on the project,  

The cell samples that went into space showed a diminished ability to activate a normal immune response, according to Hammamieh.  

“This means that the cells are not able to respond to a pathogen anymore," she said. "For an astronaut, that means that it will be easier to get sick because their immune system is weakening.”

Parallels to stress in war

The cells in the space shuttle experiment were so busy dealing with microgravity that they barely put up a fight against infections, said Marti Jett, director of the Integrative Systems Biology Program at the Medical Command.

Researchers from US Army Medical Research and Material Command and the Department of Defense Space Test Program collaborate on the space health experiments. (USAMRMC)Researchers from US Army Medical Research and Material Command and the Department of Defense Space Test Program collaborate on the space health experiments. (USAMRMC)
x
Researchers from US Army Medical Research and Material Command and the Department of Defense Space Test Program collaborate on the space health experiments. (USAMRMC)
Researchers from US Army Medical Research and Material Command and the Department of Defense Space Test Program collaborate on the space health experiments. (USAMRMC)
These results were very similar to those of a study she and her colleagues conducted a couple of years ago with Army Ranger trainees under battlefield conditions.

“We saw a rather similar thing there," Jett said, "that these young men were so stressed from reduced sleep, their heavy exercise, their activities, that their immune cells simply did not respond very well, when ex-vivo [outside the body] exposed the cells to a variety of pathogens.”  

This weakened immune response echoed the results with the space shuttle samples. But the Atlantis experiment revealed other effects.

Researchers found the reduced gravity also activated certain genes in the human tissue involved with rheumatoid arthritis and tumor growth, raising additional health concerns for human space flight.

Could lead to new therapies

Identifying which gene molecules were responsible for the weakened immune response offers hope for therapeutic strategies, both in space and on Earth.  

“If one molecule is not as active as it should be in space, how can we make this molecule more active?" Hammamieh said. "This way we can induce the immune system of astronauts or humans in space.”

She hopes to follow up with a study that will send mice with induced wounds up to the International Space Station to explore how microgravity affects healing. The results could be especially important for astronauts heading into space on longer missions, like those planned to an asteroid and Mars.

You May Like

Elusive Deal With Iran Could Yield Foreign Policy Legacy for Obama

A new Iranian leader -- and a strategic shift by the United States -- opens narrow window for nuclear agreement with Tehran More

Column: Saudi-Iran Meeting Could Boost Fight Against Islamic State

The fact that Iranians and Saudis are talking again does not guarantee a breakthrough, but it could make it easier to build a broad coalition against IS More

Thai Ruler Gives Top Cabinet Posts to Junta Inner Circle

Thailand's army chief has kept an iron grip on power as he extends the government, hand-picking an interim parliament that subsequently nominated him prime minister More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015i
X
Carol Pearson
August 30, 2014 7:14 PM
A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

AppleAndroid