NASA, Baylor and others team up to study health risks in space
Space exploration and travel have been an American obsession for decades. Star Wars, Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey captivated the interest of the country and made us all believe that a new frontier was within reach.
But in reality, space travel is not so easy. Whether astronauts are in low-earth orbit or beyond, they face serious health issues that can have long-term effects. NASA has identified several of issues and has enlisted the help of Baylor College of Medicine to reduce these health risks even further.
This summer, the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor, in partnership with the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was awarded a grant for up to $246 million for a minimum of six years to develop the Translational Research Institute (TRI). The institute will focus on finding solutions to the health risks to which astronauts are exposed during spaceflight.
“Essentially what happens is that when you go into space, pretty much every physiological system in your body is affected,” said Jeffrey Sutton, M.D., director of the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor. “NASA has outlined what they believe to be the greatest risks to astronauts in space and it is our job to explore what the effects will be to our astronauts and find solutions for them.”
NASA is working to send more astronauts to space for longer duration flights, eventually completing missions to Mars. Flying to Mars not only requires a substantial time commitment – nearly three years of travel – but will also expose astronauts to intense levels of radiation.
“Beyond low-earth orbit, the biggest risk to astronauts is radiation,” Sutton said. “Radiation that comes in from outside our solar system consists of charged particles and ions, some of which are very heavy and consist of iron which, for example, shreds DNA, rips through cells and nerve components. It can also rip through the spacecraft. Radiation is the biggest threat to astronauts so we have to understand the effects of radiation. What does it do to your blood vessels, to your heart, your brain?”
In addition to researching the effects of radiation, Sutton and his team at the Translational Research Institute will be looking into many other areas that affect astronauts on long-duration space flights, such as shelf-life for medication, the benefits of 3D printing in space, healthy food options and even delivering care to astronauts in the harsh, remote depths of the solar system.
“Even something as simple as how long do medications last,” Sutton said. “We have a shelf-life for medication and on a three-year journey, we have to look at how stable the medication will be. Will radiation cause the medicine to break down? Will our bodies have changes in how they metabolize the medication? There are some really kind of fundamental questions that have come up in the area of deterioration exercises that have been very effective.”
The Translational Research Institute will be looking for breakthrough technologies and strategies that can be implemented quickly in space flight through the “bench-to-spaceflight” model. This model will move results from the TRI laboratory directly to astronauts. The TRI will be located in the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute, where dozens of start-ups are currently creating revolutionary medical devices.
“For us it is a phenomenal honor to work with NASA,” Sutton said. “This is an opportunity to be at the intersection of space and medicine. Fundamentally, what is needed here is engaging the brightest and best minds to work together on teams, and to bridge gaps in research and development that are taking place in our universities and medical schools and integrate that together with NASA’s operational needs and to target high-risk areas that are the most important for NASA to solve in a thoughtful and creative way.”