NASA Looks to Gene Therapy to Keep Future Space Explorers Healthy

For the past 50 years, space travel advocates like Asgardia have been working toward expanding our footprint in space with the idea of lunar bases, colonies on Mars and deep space exploration. However, there are still crucial obstacles that need to be overcome before we can accomplish those lofty goals. One of those obstacles is how do we keep future space explorers healthy?

That question is what triggered NASA to look toward the fast-moving world of gene therapy, which might be able to solve many possible medical issues facing astronauts on extended space missions.

The US space agency and the associated Translational Institute for Space Health Research (TRISH) at the Baylor College of Medicine are now asking for proposals from private companies and other groups to develop a kind of gene therapy for astronauts. However, this would differ from recent gene therapies that address specific diseases like hemophilia or various types of cancer. Rather, the idea behind this is to minimize the damage from space radiation through a kind of preventive treatment.

Exposure to radiation in space can result in cancer, cardiovascular disease, cataracts and the loss of cognitive function as part of the accelerated death of brain cells. These different disease categories involve very different mechanisms — cancer and heart disease result from radiation damaging DNA, while the loss of brain tissue results simply from radiation killing off mature cells, and still, other diseases result from radiation destroying stem cells.

Of, course the point of this research is to augment our chances of expanding our reach beyond planet Earth but the technology could still provide many benefits to those of us who remain on our planet. For example, space technology has inspired cell phones, GPS and even the Velcro on your sneakers. When it comes to the realm of health, research by NASA and other space agencies has dozens of spinoffs, such as superconductor innovations that have improved and decreased the cost of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, a Mars Rover-inspired robots that patrol hospital halls while allowing doctors and nurses to interact with patient devices, and a variety of medical monitoring devices.

One of the six categories in NASA’s translational space health program is the development of nucleotide-based therapies but it is not the only genetic engineering category on the list. Among the other categories is the development of new genetically engineered edible plants, with novel functions apart from their edibility. The program will begin funding in January 2019.

One of the main concerns surrounding long-duration space travel is how humans will be impacted by exposure to the high energy particle radiation (galactic cosmic radiation or GCR) that fills deep space. Will they experience rapid loss of memory and cognitive function? This worry has led to more research toward a drug to fight those effects. There is also concern about space radiation causing long-term cardiac damage. The expected radiation dosage on an exploration mission to Mars would be much lower (and of a different physical nature) than that experienced by cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer and certain types of lymphoma. Yet there is a strong rational that DNA damage mitigation strategies will be similarly applicable to prevent cardiac damage in both astronauts and those receiving radiation therapy here on Earth.

The reason behind the worry over space radiation is that life forms are actually well protected from the most damaging components of space radiation on the surface of Earth and even in low orbits, like the altitudes at which the International Space Station orbits Earth once every 92 minutes. This is due to the strong magnetic field produced by the movement of metals in Earth’s core that deflects protons and other charged particles which constitute much of the space radiation that travels toward Earth. The deflection generates barbell shaped regions at high altitudes called the Van Allen Belts, where space radiation is concentrated.

However, past the Van Allen belts, a spacecraft is within the normal interplanetary space radiation environment, which includes much of the space between Earth and the Moon.

Thus, one concept is that eventually spacecraft could actually generate their own magnetic fields to deflect radiation much like Earth does. Plus, there are many pharmaceuticals being developed for radiation projection. Even as NASA works to develop a radiation gene therapy, there is a simple solution to the question of how to protect colonists on other worlds: Simply build the colonies within lava tubes far underground.

Seeing as the ground, if one builds deep enough, is a powerful way to protect against radiation one can be optimistic that people will be able to live on, and visit, other worlds. However, it’s less likely that future colonies will take shape in the form of domes. Domes may indeed cover Martian and lunar colonies in the future, but only for the sake of plants.

If you’re interested in helping to prevent space threats such as solar storms and potentially dangerous asteroids, in order to live peacefully in space then join Asgardia now! Become an official citizen and help accelerate this process, as we highlight solutions that could prevent future catastrophes.




Image Credit: Vadim Sadovski / Shutterstock


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