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UTMB researcher studies how future deep space travelers can stay healthy

UTMB researcher studies how future deep space travelers can stay healthy

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As NASA astronaut, Dr. Serena Auñón-Chancellor, circles the earth aboard the International Space Station, one of her colleagues at The University of Texas Medical Branch is conducting research in preparation for manned missions to deep space, possibly Mars.

Auñón-Chancellor, a clinical assistant professor at UTMB who is conducting scientific studies in space, like most astronauts on the space station, will remain in lower earth orbit for several months.

Meanwhile, Bradford Loucas, a researcher at UTMB is working to help make sure any future deep space trips would be safe by studying the effects of galactic cosmic radiation on human cells in simulations here on earth.

Loucas recently learned his $1.8 million proposal to study galactic radiation has been approved by NASA. The research will allow the agency to design spaceships in ways that will minimize an astronaut’s exposure to galactic radiation.

According to Loucas, radiation exposure in space could produce changes in DNA that could lead to cancer. In addition to DNA changes, the radiation exposure could also lead to cognitive impairments and damage to the cardiovascular system.

There has been quite a bit of research done on those exposed to radiation on earth. For many years, researchers have followed people who were exposed to radiation from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.  Unfortunately, the radiation that astronauts will encounter in space is different, hence the need to study deep space radiation.

While the astronauts are primarily concerned with the more immediate dangers of space flight, Loucas noted that, “From the point of view of their health, radiation-induced cancers might occur, say 20 years down the road long after their return to earth. More directly, radiation could affect their cognitive abilities which could impact their ability to land a spacecraft safely.”

Much of Loucas’ and his team’s research will be conducted at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. The Department of Energy’s lab has the large heavy ion accelerators needed to conduct the experiments.

The work done by Loucas and his team continues a long UTMB tradition of working with NASA to further space exploration.

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