Study of astronaut twins reveals long-term spaceflight's health impact

14 Avril, 2019, 00:19 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • NASA’s Rodent Habitat module with both access doors open

Can't connect right now! The Twins Study gave us the first integrated molecular view into genetic changes, and demonstrated how a human body adapts and remains robust and resilient even after spending almost a year aboard the International Space Station.

Bailey will continue her telomere research with NASA through a new project created to answer questions about astronaut health and performance on long missions as they journey to the Moon and Mars. How space travel and long-duration missions might change the human body, and whether those changes are permanent or reversible once astronauts return to Earth, is largely unknown.

Mitochondria, the body's "cellular powerhouse" are remarkably resilient to the stress of space, according to the NASA Twins Study.

Space travel can have some interesting effects on human health, and NASA's Twins Study on retired astronauts Mark Kelly and Scott Kelly showed that spending a year aboard the International Space Station (ISS) could cause some gene expression changes.

Using Mark as a baseline, 84 researchers at 12 universities documented the molecular, cognitive and physiological effects of Scott's year in space.

"This first-of-its-kind investigation has provided clues about how a long duration space flight changes the regulation of molecules in the body and the relationship of these changes with physiological changes in the body due to space flight, such as vascular remodeling and vision problems", said senior author Brinda Rana, PhD, professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

But once he returned to Earth, she said, Scott's average telomere length shortened "very rapidly".

Dr Steven Platts, deputy chief scientist of NASA's Human Research Program, said it will "guide future biomedical space research and allow us to have a safer journey to and from Mars". Green, together with colleagues George Chlipala and Mark Maienschein-Cline in UIC's Research Informatics Core, sequenced DNA extracted from bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microbes present in fecal swabs collected from the twins before, during and after Scott's year-long mission on the space station.

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He was monitored pre-flight and post-flight and during his time on the ISS. "Our study established protocols for collecting and transporting samples for future multi-omics studies on astronauts". Mark Kelly provided a baseline for observation on Earth, and Scott Kelly provided a comparable test case in space.

"The unique thing is that because they´re twins, essentially they have the same genetic code", said Dr. Andy Feinberg of Johns Hopkins University.

"Our main findings in Scott were that the carotid artery wall became thicker early in flight and remained so throughout the mission", Lee said.

Mark did not have any such thickening. The research can also help us understand how the human body reacts to other stressors, such as disease.

Although researchers have a solid understanding of how shorter space missions affect the body, there is little research about long-term space travel impacts because only four people have participated in space missions lasting at least one year. Stanford was one of 26 institutions that collaborated with NASA to examine the twins at the molecular level, focusing on protein production, immune response, metabolism and the efficacy of vaccines in space.

Green and colleagues also saw no changes in levels of microbial diversity during Scott's time on the space station. "If you see a difference between these two people, how do you know if what you're looking at is because of the twin on the ground or the twin in space?"

"It is expected that astronauts conducting exploration-class missions could experience risks from mitochondrial dysfunction, immunological stress, vascular changes and fluid shifts, and cognitive performance decline, as well as alterations in telomere length, gene regulation and genome integrity", the study said. "They included things that affect DNA maintenance and fix, as well ramping up the immune system when it's needed".

Possibly the weirdest finding had to do with something called telomeres, the protective ends of chromosomes. Lengthening telomeres is now being studied by scientists as a way to reverse aging and beat cancer. But much to our surprise, Scott's telomeres were significantly longer at every time point and in every sample tested during spaceflight.

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