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The International Space Station, where a team will look into stress, immunity and the urinary microbiome. Photo: Getty Images

Medical researchers to use first private space station mission to study immune system, astronauts’ stress and human microbes

  • Astronauts’ immune systems take a beating in space similar to what those of cancer patients experience, providing an opportunity to study ways to mitigate it
  • Meanwhile they will take urine samples for a study of how changes in the human microbiome occur, and their stress levels will be monitored

As an oncologist, Adam Dicker has seen how cancer treatments can pummel the body to knock out tumours, sometimes leading to deteriorating bones, more infections, and disturbed sleep cycles. Similar ailments have been observed in a group of healthy people: astronauts who spend time in space.

In 2022, Dicker and fellow researchers at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia will launch three studies of how space travel affects aspects of the human body – immunity, microbes in urine, and stress – as part of the first private mission to the International Space Station. Researchers believe the unique environment in space can shed light on human health on Earth.

“I never thought I’d ever do a project in space,” said Paul Chung, assistant professor of urology at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, who is involved in one of the space studies. “Most people don’t even know the logistics of how someone would do a project in space.”

The eight-day mission organised by Axiom Space is the first of its kind to be approved by Nasa. On January 22, 2022 a SpaceX rocket will ferry four paying passengers to the International Space Station along with 44 scientific experiments commissioned by the Ramon Foundation in Israel and the Israel Space Agency. So far one passenger, former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe, has volunteered to participate in the studies.

Ex fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe has volunteered for the mission. Photo: GPO
Dicker, professor and chair of radiation oncology at Jefferson, said the immune system in particular takes a beating in both astronauts and people undergoing cancer treatment.

“Astronauts aren’t as immunosuppressed as cancer patients, but thematically we saw a linkage,” Dicker said. “No one has really studied the immune system in a comprehensive way with astronauts.”

Space station marks 20 years of people living in orbit

Astronauts who have previously returned from space missions have become easy targets for viruses that had lain dormant in their bodies for years, like the herpes virus that causes shingles. To figure out how space might weaken the immune system, Dicker’s team will collect blood from the participating space travellers before and after their journey and measure more than 7,000 proteins.

Previous studies have measured changes to DNA, but measuring proteins – which are made based on genetic coding and carry out tasks in the body – gets closer to what matters, Dicker said.

He’s hoping to see patterns in groups of immune proteins that rise or fall while the astronauts are in space, which could point to ways to improve immune function for astronauts and earth-dwellers alike.

Dr Adam Dicker of the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
For cancer patients, Dicker said this could shed light on how the immune system responds to the stressors of treatment, which mirror an astronaut’s experience in space: physical stress, emotional stress, gastrointestinal problems, disturbed sleep.

Chung is counting on space to help him study the microbiome, the trillions of microscopic organisms living inside the human body. There’s a myth that urine is sterile, but as a urologist Chung knows better; it’s actually full of microbes like bacteria and fungi.

The microbiome is better studied in the digestive system, where more friendly varieties of bacteria can help digestion, while others can cause discomfort. But the urinary microbiome is murkier, and scientists still don’t know how it changes, Chung said.

What is the microbiome? Doctors explain how gut bacteria regulate body

“If we can see changes in the microbiome in space, then that will help us to better understand how changes in the microbiome may occur on earth,” Chung said.

Urine is no laughing matter in space: being unable to urinate warrants a Nasa rescue mission, and astronauts are at high risk of developing kidney stones or urinary tract infections.

Astronauts will use a mess-free apparatus – similar to toilets on board the shuttle – to collect and freeze urine. Back on earth, scientists will sequence the genetic material in the urine to figure out what types of microbes it contains.

Studying the human microbiome is another part of the mission to the space station. Photo: Shutterstock

It’s trickier to collect human samples in outer space than on earth. Dicker decided not to collect blood samples while the astronauts were in space because of the risk of making them anaemic and the weight – and cost – the equipment would add to the delicately balanced space shuttle.

In a third study, Jefferson brain scientists will continue their ongoing investigation into how the stress of space travel affects sleep and health.

This mission is hopefully just a starting point, Dicker said, and may help prepare for future trips: the space station is suborbital, which means conditions won’t be as extreme as what astronauts might encounter travelling to proposed destinations like Mars.

How the mind and body connect and affect the immune system

“This is the beginning of a road map,” Dicker said. “It’s completely uncharted.”