Research to improve the health of astronauts for future space missions

The University of Birmingham is launching two major new studies funded by the British Space Agency aimed at solving the health problems faced by astronauts on long missions.

The research will use the low-gravity (microgravity) environment of the International Space Station and other facilities that provide space-like conditions, and could also benefit people with conditions such as loss of sight. by excessive brain pressure.

It is well known that the effects of space travel wreak havoc on the bodies of astronauts, while in microgravity their bearing bones lose an average of one to one and a half percent of their mineral density per month. To counter this, they currently have to exercise for two and a half hours a day, take nutritional supplements, and follow high protein diets to maintain muscle mass while in space. Without these interventions, astronauts could experience a loss of muscle mass of up to 20% during space flights lasting between five and 11 days.

The first of two studies at the University of Birmingham will be conducted in collaboration with NASA and will focus on a disease called neuro-ocular syndrome associated with spaceflight (SANS), which can have serious consequences for the health of astronauts. The syndrome can cause a variety of side effects, including vision loss due to changes in the optic nerve, headaches, and acute and chronic changes in the brain.

The project will first investigate how to optimize the use of high-resolution imaging for early diagnosis and monitoring, and will be followed by a clinical trial to test the efficacy of drug therapy using receptor agonists. GLP-1 to attenuate SANS and the associated long-term. consequences in the long term.

Alex Sinclair, professor of neurology at the University of Birmingham who will lead the research, said: “SANS is caused by microgravity and gets worse with the longer duration of spaceflight. This is a major challenge for space exploration to extend to Mars. We need precise methods to identify and monitor SANS. Scanning the ocular nerve using a technology known as optical coherence tomography (OCT) has become a promising technique and we will be testing it on the International Space Station. We are delighted that we also have a treatment candidate using a GLP-1 receptor agonist to lower brain fluid and pressure which we believe will alleviate SANS. “

Miss Susan Mollan, Director of Ophthalmic Research at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, who will also be involved in the SANS study, said: “SANS is one of the most important human factors that must be taken into account. We have developed both preclinical and clinical evidence that GLP1 receptor agonists can reduce fluids and pressure in the brain and around the ocular nerve. This project could lead to life-saving therapy that could help bring humans safely to Mars. “
The second study from the University of Birmingham will focus on the causes that contribute to the increased risk of cervical herniated disc (IVD) in astronauts upon their return to Earth.

Professor Deborah Falla, director of the Precision Rehabilitation Center for Spinal Pain at the University of Birmingham, who will lead the research, said: “An IVD hernia can cause significant pain, weakness and numbness. Our study will examine the causes that contribute to this increased risk of IVD cervical hernia by using advanced high-density electromyography to measure control of neck movements. This knowledge will serve as the basis for future interventions aimed at reducing this risk. “

These two new University of Birmingham projects, along with three other separate projects led by the University of Northumbria, the University of Liverpool and the Manchester Metropolitan University, are each expected to receive a share of £ 440,000 of the funding from the British Space Agency, and will support much longer space missions needed to explore the Moon and beyond.

Science Minister George Freeman said: “Our space science is about cutting-edge life sciences as well as rockets and satellites: the UK is at the heart of cutting-edge biomedical surveillance, providing enormous potential information on human health. For example, how astronauts’ eyesight deteriorates in space and then repairs itself on Earth could provide powerful information to help researchers at labs like Moorfields understand eye health and potential new treatments. This research could allow astronauts to safely embark on longer and more difficult missions, for the good of all of us. “

British ESA Astronaut Tim Peake said: “It is exciting to see this cutting edge research taking place here in the UK. We can learn a lot about the human body from space flights, especially about the aging process. This research could allow astronauts to perform longer missions and explore further into space, while benefiting everyone on Earth. “

The government recently launched its National Space Strategy which outlines its long-term plans to develop Britain’s space sector and make Britain a science and technology superpower, including building on manufacturing and technological capabilities, by attracting investment and working internationally.

The announcement comes during World Space Week, which runs October 4-10. The annual event, led by the United Nations, celebrates the contribution of science and technology to improving life on Earth. This year’s theme is Women in Space.

Thanks to the UK’s membership in the European Space Agency’s (ESA) exploration program, UK researchers have access to unique facilities, including parabolic flights that mimic gravity-free conditions in an airplane and towers airdrops that produce a controlled period of weightlessness.

Elodie Viau, ESA ECSAT Site Manager at Harwell Space Cluster in Oxfordshire, said: “As we venture further into space, we are proud to see UK members of ESA helping British scientists to conduct pioneering research to support these efforts. These projects are expected to offer a variety of human health benefits, which could be applied to both ESA astronauts and the inhabitants of Earth. “

In March of this year, ESA launched its first recruitment drive for new astronauts in 11 years, with more than 22,000 applicants, including nearly 2,000 from the UK. ESA is looking for up to six astronauts and up to 20 reservists, with successful applicants to be announced next year.

The UK space agency also provided £ 16,000 in funding to Kew Gardens to explore how the seeds could be stored and transported into space to support human exploration to Mars and beyond. The Agency is supporting the preparation and testing of 24 seed species before their flight to the International Space Station in a few years.

Notes to editor

  • To arrange media interviews with Professor Sinclair or Professor Falla, please contact the University of Birmingham Press Office, via Emma McKinney (Media Relations Officer) Tel. : +44 (0) 7789 921 165.
  • For interviews with the UK Space Agency, contact Gareth Bethell, tel. : +44 (O) 7925 891 949.
  • The University of Birmingham is ranked among the top 100 institutions in the world and its work brings people from all over the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than 6,500 international students from almost 150 countries.

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