IDWeek 2018: Astronaut discusses effects of space travel on human health

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Science Speaks is covering IDWeek in San Francisco with reporting on breaking news and developments in global infectious diseases, and the people who drive them.

SAN FRANCISCO – What are the effects of radiation on microbiome samples for scientific study? How about the effects on the scientists conducting those experiments? How do you conduct infection control when you live and sleep in your lab – all while orbiting 250 miles from Earth? These are some of the questions astronaut and microbiologist Kate Rubins tried to answer on board the International Space Station. Rubins, who is the first person to sequence DNA in space, shared her experiences on conducting experiments in space with infectious diseases physicians and scientists here in an opening talk.

Experimentation on the space station is similar to working in a biosafety level 4 lab – labs with the highest level of containment and security where the deadliest agents, like Ebola, are examined, Rubins said. Unlike a BSL4 lab, however, scientists on the space station cannot leave their lab and must ensure extra layers of containment for microbes that can be hazardous for humans, she said.

Along with improving space technologies and exploring further into space, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration wants to examine the health effects of space travel, along with exploring ways to conduct scientific experiments on space craft, Rubins said.

“We’re really interested in looking at the human microbiome and what changes in space,” she said. Rubins looks at the effects of consuming food with a long shelf life and that has to be irradiated, the influence of microgravity, the effects of living in an altered environment and the stresses of altered sleep patterns and circadian rhythms, and the effects of low level radiation.

“There are all kinds of pretty interesting stressors and it will be a complex problem to resolve how they’re affecting the microbiome,” she said.

While people who spend time in space are less likely to fall ill from common infections due to less exposure, one effect on human health that’s clear from research conducted in space is increased immunosuppression, Rubins said.

“We have had cases of reactivation, like shingles or herpes in otherwise healthy people,” she said.

“This is something to think about for long term space travel,” Rubins said, “if immunosuppression gets worse over time.”

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