A new study performed aboard the International Space Station (ISS) has shown that being in space weakens astronauts' immune systems. Researchers hope the findings can help prevent disease for those of us still on the planet.
European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Reiter performed the experiments while on the ISS, as seen in the video below. Human immune cells were allowed to float freely in microgravity while others were placed in a centrifuge that simulated gravity. The cells in the centrifuge were found to be more healthy than those left to float.
Analysis showed that a transmitter called the Rel/NF-kB pathway stopped working in microgravity, preventing immune cells from working correctly.
“Normally, when our bodies sense an invasion, a cascade of reactions occur that are controlled by the information held in our genes, similar to an instruction book,” said Isabelle Walther, a researcher with the Space Biology Group in Zurich, Switzerland. “Finding which gene does what is like looking for the right key to fit a keyhole, without having found the keyhole yet.”
Researchers stated that these findings could help disease research in two ways. First, being able to deactivate genes associated with the immune system could help patients who suffer from autoimmune diseases. Second, drugs could be developed to target genes that fight specific diseases.
“We are working towards a finer control of disease,” said Millie Hughes-Fulford, a NASA astronaut and an investigator on the research. “If you imagine our immune system responding to diseases as a waterfall, up until now we have been fighting disease at the bottom of the waterfall. In the future we could target the raindrops before they have a chance to cascade into waterfalls. We live in exciting times.”