Research and Impact | News and Announcements

Guiding humanity beyond the moon: OHIO researchers push to revolutionize human space biology

What actually happens to the human body in space? While scientists and researchers have heavily researched how various factors impact the human body here on Earth, the amount of information available about changes that occur in the body in space is not as well-known. Scientists, including OHIO’s Nate Szewczyk and several of his trainees, have been studying for years how the body, specifically on the molecular side, changes in space. Recently, a new package of papers has been published in “Nature” journals depicting how the modern tools of molecular biology and precision medicine can help guide humanity into more challenging missions beyond where we’ve already been.

The package of papers, titled “Space Omics and Medical Atlas across orbits,” includes manuscripts, data, protocols, and code, representing the largest-ever compendium of data for aerospace medicine and space biology. Over 100 institutions from more than 25 countries worked together to coordinate the release of this molecular, cellular, physiological, phenotypic, and spaceflight data.

Szewczyk, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and a principle investigator in the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurologic Institute, coauthored seven different articles including: “Spaceflight induces changes in gene expression profiles linked to insulin and estrogen,” “Astronaut omics and the impact of space on the human body at scale,” “Understanding how space travel affects the female reproductive system,” “Transcriptomics analysis reveals molecular alterations underpinning spaceflight dermatology,” “Aging and putative frailty biomarkers are altered by spaceflight,” and “Ethical considerations for the age of non-governmental space exploration.”

In addition to coauthoring several papers, Szewczyk also involved his trainees on six of the papers. The trainees include OHIO medical students Anthony Carano and Caroline Coffey; Alexia Tasoula, a Ph.D. student in the translational biomedical sciences program; post-doctoral research Craig Willis, an OHIO alum and current assistant professor at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom; as well as Dr. Henry Cope, researcher with the National Health Service in the United Kingdom.

Their articles highlight research from how spaceflight induced changes in insulin and estrogen signaling in rodents and humans, to ethical considerations for commercial spaceflight, and known and potential impacts of spaceflight on reproduction.

“We’ve studied worms for years but now have the ability to study people,” Szewczyk said. “We are at a place, particularly with NASA and the commercial sector, where we can focus on using more modern omics techniques to try and better understand changes in astronauts themselves, which can revolutionize their health.”

Szewczyk, known for his work researching worms in space, highlights the significance of these creatures as the first multicellular animals to have their genome sequenced. Leveraging genomics tools and techniques developed through worm studies, researchers have been able to delve into the molecular changes experienced by organisms in space. He notes that for over two decades, worms have been sent into space to observe gene expression alterations, paving the way for these similar studies in humans.

But as space flight becomes more commercialized and more people outside of just NASA’s astronauts pursue orbit, the need to understand the molecular level of humans in space becomes more important in ensuring their health and safety.

According to Szewczyk, the U.S. is growing in its space-based economy and as a result of that, there is now increased interest in commercial space flight. In Ohio, there is a new space park in Columbus set up by the commercial company Voyager Space.

“The more commercial space flight grows, the more important understanding people’s omics is,” Szewczyk explained. “Space medicine is evolving from something that really only NASA was responsible for since they were the only organization sending people into space, to something more common as commercial space flight grows. We are seeing an increase in this type of flight from SpaceX and other companies and it is crucial that those entering space are prepared. Flight providers must provide medical coverage for their participants. When people go to the International Space Station (ISS), it is governed by certain rules and regulations, whereas with commercial space flight, these same guidelines don’t necessarily apply. There is interest to grow space medicine and advance techniques for looking at health in space, especially as more people are able to go into orbit.”

Szewczyk's impact extends far beyond the laboratory as he actively advocates for open science and international collaboration, particularly in the field of space research. As co-chair of the NASA GeneLab Animal Analysis Working Group, he promotes the sharing of scientific knowledge among international space agencies, exemplified by initiatives like integrating the European Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) into NASA working groups. Moreover, his involvement in a JAXA Flagship Project includes leading efforts to harmonize ethical concerns and research methodologies for precision health in astronauts across multiple space agencies, including NASA, ESA, and JAXA.

“Humans are humans regardless of where they are from or currently live and the way space impacts them is ultimately the same,” Szewczyk said. “So the more we can all work together to compare how astronauts and those visiting space react in space, the better we can work to ensure safety and determine what guidelines need put in place for their health while in space and returning.”

June 20, 2024
Staff reports