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ASU teams receive NASA grants to pursue spaceflight research

June 26, 2013

NASA and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) have announced that two Arizona State University research teams have been awarded NASA grants totaling $700,000 to support astronaut crew health and performance in space exploration missions. Of the 100 proposals received, NASA and NSBRI selected 23 proposals representing 18 institutions. ASU was one of only three institutions to have more than one proposal selected, a testament to ASU’s leadership position at the forefront of spaceflight research and space exploration.

Ariel Anbar, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, was awarded a three-year grant totaling $600,000 to detect bone loss of astronauts in microgravity, a major challenge for humans engaged in long-term space travel.

Anbar investigates bone loss by applying a technique that originated in the Earth sciences. Over the past six years he and his team have developed a method for rapidly detecting changes in short-term net bone mineral balance (BMB) based on measurement of the natural calcium isotope composition of urine and blood.

Anbar and his team, which includes associate research scientist Gwyneth Gordon and adjunct professor Joseph Skulan, both in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, have validated this method in bed rest studies. This successor grant will allow for the testing of the calcium isotope technique in spaceflight, by monitoring changes in the urine of crew members aboard the International Space Station. Separately, they are pursuing applications of the technique to the detection and treatment of bone diseases on Earth.

“Bone loss is a serious problem faced by astronauts on long-duration space missions,” said Anbar. “Our calcium isotope assay allows rapid, quantitative measures of the changes in BMB that lead to bone loss, providing key information that other techniques cannot provide.”

The second ASU recipient was Jennifer Barrila, an assistant research scientist at the Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology, the Biodesign Institute at ASU. Barrila studies microbial pathogens and is working to provide novel insights into infectious disease risks for astronauts during spaceflight missions. As a senior member of ASU professor Cheryl Nickerson’s research team, Barrila was awarded $100,000 for a year-long study to advance the previous findings made by their team that showed that spaceflight uniquely increased the disease-causing potential of the food-borne pathogen Salmonella Typhimurium.

The goal of Barrila’s study is to use the nematode C. elegans as a host model system to evaluate the effects of microgravity analogue culture on the virulence (disease causing potential) of both pathogenic and commensal microorganisms in order to mitigate infectious disease risks to NASA crews. Astronauts are particularly vulnerable to infection due to reduced immune function during spaceflight missions. The newly funded study led by ASU is a multidisciplinary collaborative effort between her team (which includes Nickerson), Sarah Castro and Mark Ott at the NASA Johnson Space Center and John Alverdy from the University of Chicago School of Medicine.

“ASU is one of the leading NASA-funded universities in the country and our team is honored that NASA continues to recognize and fund our team’s research contributions in support of crew health and mission success, which are critical for the future of human spaceflight,” said Barrila. “In addition to enhancing our understanding of microbial risk to the crew during spaceflight, it is also exciting that this work holds the potential to enhance our general understanding of the host-pathogen interaction and may hold health benefits for the general public.”

“The public’s interest in sending humans on long missions in space has never been higher,” says Anbar. “Not only NASA, but many private entrepreneurs are aiming to send people to Mars and other deep space destinations. Keeping people healthy on such voyages is going to be a huge challenge. Scientists at ASU are at the forefront in tackling these challenges.”

For a list of recipients, visit: