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

For Lebanon-based Refugees, Desperation Fuels Perilous Passage

In a war that has caused an estimated three million people to flee Syria, efforts to make perilous sea journey in search of asylum expected to increase More

South African Brewer Tackles Climate Change

Mega-brewer SAB Miller sent delegates to climate summit in Peru, says it is one of many private companies taking their own steps to fight climate change More

Indonesia Reports Increase in Citizens Joining Islamic State

Officials say more than 350 of its citizens are now in Syria or Iraq to fight with Islamic State - 50 more than last month 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.
Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?i
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
December 17, 2014 11:54 AM
The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?

The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.
Video

Video Turkey's Authoritarianism Dismays Western Allies

The Turkish government has been defiant in the face of criticism at home and abroad for its raids targeting opposition media. The European Union on Monday expressed dismay after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Brussels for criticizing his government's action. Turkey's bid to be considered for EU membership has been on hold while critics accuse the NATO ally of increasingly authoritarian rule. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video US-China Year in Review: Hong Kong to Climate Change

The United States is pushing for a code of conduct to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea as it works to improve commercial ties with Beijing. VOA State Department correspondent Scott Stearns reports on a year of U.S. policy toward China from Hong Kong to climate change.
Video

Video Japanese Leader’s Election Win Raises Potential for Conflict with Neighbors

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his allies easily won a two-thirds majority in parliament Sunday, even though the country has slipped into recession under his conservative policies. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Seoul, that the prime minister’s victory will empower him to continue economic reforms but also pursue a nationalist agenda that will likely increase tensions with Japan’s neighbors.
Video

Video Nuba Mountain Families Hide in Caves to Escape Aerial Bombings

Despite ongoing peace talks between Sudan's government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, or SPLM-N, daily aerial attacks continue in South Kordofan province’s Nuba Mountains. Adam Bailes was there and reports for VOA that government forces are targeting civilian areas, rather than military positions, with their daily bombardments.

All About America

AppleAndroid