The effort to put humans in space is the ultimate example of teamwork. A village of experts poring over challenges and pooling intellectual resources to meet the same goal:

The moon.

An asteroid.

Mars and beyond.

The University of Houston Department of Health and Human Performance (HHP) has had a long-standing relationship with NASA’s Johnson Space Center, teaming up to provide research, researchers and future employees—all focused on supporting humans in space.

“Our faculty have long been involved in space flight research,” said Dan O’Connor, HHP professor and department chair. “With NASA’s missions increasingly involving longer time in space, research about how humans adapt to living in space and how we might counteract some of the negative effects is vitally important.”

The department (HHP) is interested in understanding the body and analyzing and promoting healthy living. And one critical issue about long-term space missions is staying healthy. There are no primary care providers or drug stores to access on a six month trip to Mars. A cold, the flu, muscle or bone issues can have devastating effects on the crew and the mission.

Research on board the Space Station

Mitzi Laughlin, research assistant professor, leads a study that examines changes in astronauts’ muscle strength and function during extended space flights. A stubborn problem is the loss of muscle strength during missions. Laughlin says some crew members lose about 10 percent of muscle strength on the typical four to six month missions.

“The key point about this research is the theory that the loss of muscle strength eventually levels off,” she said. “Do you level off early, then not as much, or is it a slow decline? This will be key information as we plan to go to Mars, because we need to know what condition the astronauts will be in once they get there.”

She’s working with a 5-year, $1 million grant from NASA to follow eight crew members before, during and after missions to the International Space Station (ISS). Laughlin will take pre-flight measurements of crew members’ muscle strength and function.

While astronauts are on board the ISS, they’ll use a device called the Muscle Atrophy Research and Exercise System, or MARES. It looks like a large piece of exercise equipment you’d see in a gym, and the good news is that it’s already on the Space Station. More advanced than equipment on earth, MARES can restrict movement so that specific muscle groups are isolated. Laughlin’s research examines strength at the ankle and knee joints.

“The important piece that’s different is the in-flight measurements; we’ve always looked at pre- and post-flights since the beginning of space flight, but nothing in the middle,” she said. “With MARES, we can track the astronauts’ strength to look at changes. We want to know when the loss starts to decline and when they aren’t losing anymore.”

The first two subjects are scheduled to launch for the International Space Station in December 2016. Subsequent subjects will be followed over the next four years.

Space travel effects on the immune system

Getting sick while working on the ISS is a little different than getting a cold or the flu here on earth. If you get sick, you go to the doctor. You stay home so you don’t share your germs with your coworkers.

The ISS serves as a home away from home for astronauts and a unique lab space for research. Associate Professor Richard Simpson has worked closely with NASA on several projects. His most recent examined astronauts’ immune systems.

“We know from past research that crew members’ immune systems are dysregulated,” he said. “What we need to know before we send humans to Mars or an asteroid is what the clinical risks are.”

Simpson’s $1 million, four-year grant examined the blood, saliva and urine of crewmembers before, during and immediately after missions to the ISS. The study, due to be completed by the end of 2016, measured natural killer cells, potent cells capable of killing virus-infected cells and cancer cells.

“All of us have viruses that we’re already infected with, and our immune system does a very good job of controlling them,” Simpson said. “When astronauts are in space, those viruses are capable of reactivating from a dormant state. This could compromise crew health and jeopardize mission success. We wanted to investigate whether altered immunity and viral reactivation posed a significant risk to the health of astronauts when they’re in space for a prolonged period of time.”

The investigation found that crew members’ natural killer cells are less capable of killing cancer cells when they’re onboard the ISS. That changes, usually, once they come back to earth, but the decline in function while in space is concerning, he said.

“It is very difficult to determine precisely what is causing the impairments in natural killer cell function, because astronauts are exposed to a whole host of factors that could be responsible, like microgravity, stress, body clock disruptions, radiation exposure and sleep impairments,” Simpson said. “To address the effects of microgravity, we are currently placing human natural killer cells in a rotating wall vessel, which simulates microgravity here on Earth. We will then assess natural killer cell function after pre-exposing the cells to simulated microgravity to see if it causes the same reductions in function that we see in astronauts.”

Simpson also has partnered with NASA and other UH researchers to study behavioral and psychiatric risks associated with extreme isolation and confinement and the effects of simulated microgravity and acute radiation exposure on viral infectivity and host immune evasion.

Next Generation of Scientists

These research partnerships are important, but equally important are the research opportunities that benefit the next generation of scientists. Many doctoral students, working with their HHP faculty mentors, have provided real-world contributions to space flight challenges. Take for example, Austin Bigley, a post-doctoral student in the HHP who has received an award from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute to follow up on these findings.

“We want to know if something in the blood plasma, such as stress hormones or inflammatory immune proteins, is responsible for causing the reductions in natural killer cell function,” he said.

Hawley Kunz, also a doctoral student, worked with Simpson on his investigation into the effects of spaceflight on astronauts’ immune systems.

“As part of his lab, I became involved in his NASA-funded studies, helping to process and analyze blood and saliva samples that arrived from astronauts on the space station,” Kunz said.

This research opportunity led to an employment opportunity. Following a year long internship with NASA’s expanded immunology lab, she was hired as a scientist with Wyle (now KBRwyle), a NASA contractor.

“In my current position, I facilitate ongoing research endeavors by performing (analyses) and developing protocols. I am also assisting with the preparation of manuscripts and research presentations,” she said.

KBRwyle also has a longstanding relationship with the department of health and human performance to seek out and send new talent to work at NASA’s Johnson Space Station.

“The key element of human space exploration is the humans,” said HHP Department Chair Dan O’Connor. “Research being done at UH aims to discover and apply ways to keep humans healthy while living in space.”