Space Study Focuses on Human Cells

HOUSTON, April 6 (UPI) — While space shuttle Discovery is in the first day of its 13-day mission to the International Space Station, a first-of-its-kind experiment is also under way.

The experiment, organized by Arizona State University Associate Professor Cheryl Nickerson and her team, including Jennifer Barrila and Shameema Sarker, is designed to provide new insights into the infectious disease process, including immune disorders and cancer.

“The key to this research is the novel way that cells adapt and respond to the unique microgravity environment of spaceflight,” Nickerson said. “In response to microgravity, cells exhibit important biological characteristics that are directly relevant to human health and disease, including changes in immune function, stress responses and virulence (infectious disease potential) that are not observed using traditional experimental approaches.”

In previous experiments aboard shuttle’s Atlantis and Endeavour, the researchers determined spaceflight induces major changes in the gene expression and virulence of a food-born pathogen.

The current mission is the first time human cells will undergo infection by the pathogen — Salmonella typhimurium — during spaceflight. It will characterize the effect of microgravity on intestinal cellular responses before and after infection.

The scientists say a more thorough understanding of the way pathogens and human cells interact in space might lead to new vaccines and therapeutics for a broad range of diseases, as well as other afflictions affecting human populations.

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