Analog studies mitigate risk for space travelers

Although NASA takes extreme precautions to avoid crew health risks, infectious disease incidences have been reported on spaceflight missions. Therefore, just as they do with any risk, NASA must gain a proper understanding of any possible outcome of that risk. This avoids potential catastrophes in space. NASA does so with analog testing. Analog testing, grounded here on Earth, uses instrumentation and equipment that can simulate some spaceflight conditions. Nickerson’s team cultivates the pathogenic microbes in bioreactors that can both mimic aspects of the microgravity environment as well as simulate conditions experienced by tissues in our bodies and pathogens that infect those tissues.  Specifically, these space analog bioreactors mimic the low fluid force conditions (called fluid shear) encountered by cells in these environments.  

Nickerson and her team will be providing a virulence risk profile for a range of pathogens that NASA is concerned about. In the study, the pathogenic microbes will be exposed to a variety of stressors that may be encountered when infecting a host. Nickerson explains, “We are testing the ability for spaceflight analog grown pathogens to resist stresses that your body throws at them during infection, and then we ask can they be effectively killed?” In addition, the ability of these pathogens to infect both 3D tissue culture models (also produced in analog conditions) that contain immune cells and astronaut blood will also be investigated.

“This grant leverages from all of the biomedical work that we have completed with NASA in the past," Nickerson said. "These studies are specifically designed to help chart NASA's mission for what kind of infectious disease health risks might occur during human exploration missions to the moon and Mars."

Christine Lewis

PhD candidate and science writer, Biodesign Institute Center for Applied Structural Discovery and the School of Molecular Sciences