Tag: spaceflight

Childhood Cancer Survivor Set to Break Barriers in Space

Hayley Arcenaux, seated furthest left, is the Medical Officer for the Inspiration4 flight. She is a survivor of childhood cancer and works as a physician assistant at St Jude’s Children’s Hospital, for which the flight is raising funds and awareness.

The first chartered spaceflight into orbit, scheduled for launch on September 15, will have a crewmember who is both a childhood cancer survivor and physician assistant as part of the crew. 

The three-day long mission aboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft was chartered by entrepreneur Jared Isaacman. Dubbed Inspiration4, the flight is in fact also raising money and awareness for St Jude Children’s Hospital, which was given two of the four seats on the spacecraft. The funds raised for the hospital are believed to have exceeded the cost of the flight.

Isaacman offered the first seat to 29 year-old Hayley Arceneux, who works as a physician assistant at St Jude’s and will be the medical officer for the flight. She was also a patient at the very same hospital. At age 10, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, the most common primary paediatric bone malignancy. In addition to a dozen rounds of chemotherapy, she had a limb-sparing operation which replaced her knee and inserted a titanium reinforcing rod in her femur. This will make her the first person with a prosthetic in space. Such a medical history would have immediately disqualified her for astronaut selection with any of the government-run space agencies like NASA.

In an interview with The Cut, she described her work as a physician assistant at St Jude’s: “I work inpatient… with leukaemia and lymphoma patients specifically. The majority of them received their cancer diagnoses pretty recently, so a big part of  my role is helping to educate and support families through the beginning of treatment. I help them understand, What is cancer? What does the treatment process look like? What should I expect?

“We also manage the kids while they are in treatment. If they get an infection or if they get a fever, we take that really seriously. So I’ll manage their IV antibiotics or other treatment-related complications that can occur.. I check on patients, assess labs, order tests, update families on the results, order meds for outpatients. It is a lot of coordinating and educating. It’s hard, but it’s the greatest job in the world.”

St Jude’s held an auction for the other crew seat that Isaacman offered. The winning bidder declined the seat and gifted it to data engineer Christopher Sembroski. The final seat was won in an entrepreneurial competition by Dr Sian Proctor, a geologist and pilot who narrowly missed out on being chosen as a NASA astronaut. 

Speaking about the auction, Richard C. Shadyac Jr, president and chief executive of American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities, which raised fund for St Jude’s, said: “The impact of the Inspiration4 mission has been immeasurable, serving as an incredible platform to educate and engage millions in the movement to find cures and deliver care for childhood cancer and other catastrophic diseases through accelerated research and treatment. The auction is a critical component of the overall campaign as it enables us to reach new audiences and supporters as we work to fulfill our mission.”

So far, $100 million has been raised for St Jude’s.

While in space, the crew will conduct experiments such as examining fluid shifts in zero gravity using ultrasound, as well as other medical experiments including measuring blood glucose levels — in order to help expand space travel to those with diabetes.

A documentary has been made of the crew’s training, and is available to stream on Netflix.

Muscle Atrophy Gene Identified from Mice Sent into Space

Dragon cargo capsule arriving at the International Space Station. Image by SpaceX-Imagery from Pixabay

Researchers from the University of Tsukuba have found a new gene involved in muscle atrophy when they sent mice into space to explore effects of weightlessness on skeletal muscles.

Extended periods of skeletal muscle inactivity or mechanical unloading (bed rest, immobilisation, spaceflight and reduced step) can result in a significant loss of muscle mass and strength which ultimately lead to muscle atrophy. Spaceflight is one of the leading models of understanding muscle atrophy from disuse.

As the molecular and cellular mechanisms involved in disuse skeletal muscle atrophy have been studied, several different signaling pathways have been studied to understand their regulatory role in this process. However, large gaps exist in the understanding of the regulatory mechanisms involved, as well as their functional significance.

Prior studies examining the effects of reduced gravity on muscle mass and function have used a ground control group which cannot be directly compared to the space experimental group. Researchers from the University of Tsukuba set out to explore the effects of gravity in mice subjected to the same housing conditions, such as the stresses of launch, landing and cosmic radiation. “In humans, spaceflight causes muscle atrophy and can lead to serious medical problems after return to Earth” says senior author Professor Satoru Takahashi. “This study was designed based on the critical need to understand the molecular mechanisms through which muscle atrophy occurs in conditions of microgravity and artificial gravity.”

Two groups of six mice each were housed onboard the International Space Station for 35 days. One group was subjected to artificial gravity (1g) and the other was left in microgravity. All mice were returned to Earth aboard a Dragon capsule and the team compared the effects of the different onboard environments on skeletal muscles. “To understand what was happening inside the muscles and cells, at the molecular level, we examined the muscle fibers. Our results show that artificial gravity prevents the changes observed in mice subjected to microgravity, including muscle atrophy and changes in gene expression,” explained Prof Takahashi. 

Transcriptional analysis of gene expression showed that the artificial gravity environment prevented altered expression of atrophy-related genes, and also identified other genes possibly associated with atrophy. Specifically, a gene called Cacng1 was identified as possibly having a functional role in myotube atrophy, which previously had no known function, and was shown to have increased activity when muscle atrophy was present.

When muscle fibres were cultured in vitro, ones which had Cacng1 expression upregulated were decreased in diameter by 27.5%. A similar effect was seen in newborn mice with upregulated Cacng1.

This work validated the use of 1g artificial gravity environments in spaceflight for examining the effects of microgravity in muscles. These studies add to the body of knowledge surrounding the mechanisms of muscle atrophy, possibly improving the treatment of related diseases.

Source: Tsukuba University

Journal information: Okada, R., et al. (2021) Transcriptome analysis of gravitational effects on mouse skeletal muscles under microgravity and artificial 1 g onboard environment. Scientific Reports. doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-88392-4.

COVID Tracking in Space Company Employees Yields Antibody Clues

SpaceX, an aerospace manufacturing company currently providing satellite launch services as well as transport of crew  to the International Space Station, collaborated with researchers from MIT to monitor the spread of COVID amongst its employees. 

Unusually, the paper included SpaceX CEO Elon Musk as a byline author. The technology entrepreneur is known to be quite hands-on in his company’s projects. However, he has also courted controversy by openly questioning COVID tests and saying he and his family would not take COVID vaccines, saying that achieving herd immunity naturally was a better strategy.

SpaceX was seeking data-driven methods to safeguard its essential workforce. The collaboration allowed the researchers to track the emergence of mild and asymptomatic cases in a cohort of adults as early as April, when data for such cases were rare.

“Essentially, this study indicates that it’s not simply the presence or absence of antibodies that matter; rather, the amount and type of antibodies may play a defining role in the development of a protective immune response,” said Professor Galit Alter, Harvard Medical School and Immunologist, Division of Infectious Diseases, Massachusetts General Hospital. 

The study was originally aimed at measuring antibody levels over time, but when reinfections began to be reported, the team realised their samples had some valuable information.

“In early spring, we weren’t sure if asymptomatic infection could drive long-lived antibodies,” said Prof Alter, “nor whether they possessed the capability to neutralise or kill the virus.”

The researchers knew that 120 participants had mild or asymptomatic COVID infections, resulting in their bodies producing antibodies. Using sophisticated techniques to analyse those antibodies, they found that individuals with stronger symptoms in mild COVID, had a larger number of antibodies and developed immune functions associated with natural immune protection. 

The study found that although the presence of antibodies was sufficient to determine whether an individual had experienced a COVID infection, they did not automatically mean that individual is protected against the virus in the long term.

Antibody effector functions (on the ‘long arm’ of the antibody) linked to long-term protection, such as T cell activation and virus neutralisation were only seen in certain immune responses. These involved high levels of antibodies targetting a part of the virus known as the receptor binding domain.

“Once you hit a certain threshold of these antibodies, it’s like a switch turns on and we can observe antibody effector functions,” said first author Yannic Bartsch, PhD. “These functions were not observed in individuals with lower antibody binding titers, and the level of protection from reinfections is uncertain in these individuals.”

Source: News-Medical.Net

Journal information: Bartsch, Y. C., et al. (2021) Discrete SARS-CoV-2 antibody titers track with functional humoral stability. Nature Communications. doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-21336-8.