Science

NASA twins study reveals long-term spaceflight’s impact on human health

NASA twins study reveals long-term spaceflight’s impact on human health”

Results of from a comparison of genetic changes in an astronaut who spent almost a year in space and an identical twin brother who remained in Earth have demonstrated that chromosomes changed in space returned to normal on Earth, with limited permanent changes in gene expression, NASA announced in a press release on Thursday.

Three years later - after scrutinizing Kelly's blood, arteries, genes, eyes, bones, and gut bacteria in the aftermath of the historic venture in space - a team of over 80 scientists has released a sweeping analysis of how Kelly's body changed and what returned to normal after the now-retired 55-year-old astronaut returned to Earth.

This study - described by study coauthor and genomics expert Andrew Feinberg as the "dawn of human genetics in space" - is unquestionably valuable. The research can also help us understand how the human body reacts to other stressors, such as disease.

Other co-investigators working with Rana included Tomas Vaisar and Andy Hoofnagle at the University of Washington; Immaculata De Vivo at Harvard School of Public Health; and Stuart Lee, Brandon Macias and Mike Stenger at the Johnson Space Center. "We in NASA's Human Research Program plan to continue this line of investigation for years to come, including aboard the space station during the Integrated One-Year Mission Project, now under development", Bill Paloski, the director of NASA's Human Research Program, said in an statement.

"If we know what to expect, we can anticipate health problems astronauts may encounter and ensure that medicines and other remedies are at hand during a mission".

Key results from the NASA Twins Study include findings related to gene expression changes, immune system response, and telomere dynamics. But perhaps, during a longer deep space mission, this could lead to ill-effects. In short, NASA needs to study more astronauts as they spend varying lengths of time floating in space.

The brothers were monitored for 25 months before, during and after Scott Kelly's mission to the space station from March 27, 2015, to March 1, 2016.

The study compared data from two identical twins, astronaut Scott Kelly and his brother, Mark Kelly. He led one of 10 teams of researchers that scrutinized the twins' health down to the molecular level before, during and after Kelly's 340-day stay at the International Space Station.

Geneticists were intrigued to find that Scott's telomeres actually lengthened during his spaceflight, but became shorter when he was back on Earth.

Overall, they found that about just as many epigenetic changes occurred in earthbound Mark's DNA as occurred in his space-flying twin. "He travels around, he golfs, his diet changes, and that is a big difference".

While Scott took part in space-based biomedical studies involving known hazards like weightlessness and radiation, Mark participated in parallel studies on Earth. Upon Scott Kelly's return, NASA studied the effects space exposure had on his health by comparing his data to that from his brother, Mark.

"It was encouraging to see that there was no massive disruption of the epigenome in either Mark or Scott", says Rizzardi. One of the findings from Rana's study was an increase in collagen proteins in urine in space flight, which correlated to physiological measures indicating vascular remodeling during space flight.

Bailey said that from her perspective, "the most striking finding" is the elongation of Scott's telomeres in space. "It just tells us that we need to be monitoring the astronauts when they come back". Feinberg, Rizzardi, and NASA scientist Brian Crucian developed detailed instructions for doing complicated experiments in microgravity. This also increases the risk for diseases that come along with aging, including cardiovascular disease and some cancers. As the space agency previously stated, researchers also found variability in gene expression, with the majority of changes reverting to normal after half a year back on Earth. They found dramatic shifts in gene expression, particularly during the final six months of the mission where Kelly's genes showed marked changes. Before the space flight, the brothers had similar levels of a particular type of DNA damage; afterward, Scott ended up with more.

"The challenge was to collect enough biofluids onboard the ISS at multiple time points throughout the year for all 10 investigative teams to conduct this comprehensive omics view of the human body in space", said Rana.



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