Earthbound Remedies Inspired By Spacebound
By Mike Mitchell
March 27, 2011 - Recent research aboard the space
shuttle is giving scientists a better understanding of
how infectious disease occurs in space and could someday
improve astronaut health and provide novel treatments
for people on Earth.
"With our space-based research efforts, including the
International Space Station, we are not only continuing
our human presence in space, but we are engaged in
science that can make a real difference in people's
lives here on Earth," said NASA Administrator Charles
"NASA's leadership in human spaceflight allows us to conduct innovative and ground-breaking science that reveals the unknown and unlocks the mysteries of how disease-causing agents work."
research involves an opportunistic pathogen known as Pseudomonas
aeruginosa, the same bacterium that caused astronaut Fred Haise
to become sick during the Apollo 13 mission to the moon in 1970.
studying the bacterium aboard the shuttle hope to unlock the
mysteries of how disease-causing agents work. They believe the
research can lead to advanced vaccines and therapies to better
fight infections. The findings are based on flight experiments
with microbial pathogens on NASA shuttle missions to the
International Space Station and appear in a recent edition of
the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.
"For the first time, we're able to see that two very different species of bacteria - Salmonella and Pseudomonas - share the same basic regulating mechanism, or master control switch, that micro-manages many of the microbes' responses to the spaceflight environment," said Cheryl Nickerson, associate professor at the Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology, the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe.
"We have shown that spaceflight affects common regulators in both bacteria that invariably cause disease in healthy individuals [Salmonella] and those that cause disease only in people with compromised immune systems [Pseudomonas]."
studying the global gene expression patterns in bacterial
pathogens like Pseudomonas and Salmonella, Nickerson's team
learned more about how they react to reduced gravity.
During the initial
study in 2006, two bacterial pathogens, Salmonella typhimurium and
Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and one fungal pathogen, Candida albicans, were
launched to the station aboard shuttles. They were allowed to grow in
appropriately contained vessels for several days. Nickerson's team was
the first to evaluate global gene and protein expression (how the
bacteria react at the molecular level) and virulence changes in microbes
in response to reduced gravity.
that aspects of the environment that microbes encountered during
spaceflight appeared to mimic key conditions that pathogens normally
encounter in our bodies during the natural course of infection,
particularly in the respiratory system, gastrointestinal system and
urogenital tract," Nickerson said. NASA's Advanced Capabilities Division
Director, Benjamin Neumann added that, "This means that in addition to
safeguarding future space travelers, such research may aid the quest for
better therapeutics against pathogens here on Earth."
The initial study
and follow-on space experiments show that spaceflight creates a low
fluid shear environment, where liquids exert little force as they flow
over the surface of cells. The low fluid shear environment of
spaceflight affects the molecular genetic regulators that can make
microbes more infectious. These same regulators might function in a
similar way to regulate microbial virulence during the course of
infection in the human body.
"We have now shown that spaceflight conditions modified molecular pathways that are known to be involved in the virulence of Pseudomonas aeruginosa," said Aurelie Crabbe, a researcher in Dr. Nickerson's lab at ASU and the lead author of the paper. "Future work will establish whether Pseudomonas also exhibits increased virulence following spaceflight as did Salmonella."
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