Space exploration has opened up new horizons, bringing probes to Mars and the far reaches of the galaxy. But the implications of space travel also hit closer to home. Space-based medical research has led to a variety of exciting breakthroughs that could help solve many of the public health issues that currently plague society.
Researchers at the International Space Station (ISS) as well as on the ground have made huge strides on the medical front, studying everything from diseases to the bodily changes that occur in space. As we grow ever closer to widespread space tourism and the possibility of deep space missions, this type of research becomes imperative to future success.
Deep space travel medicine has real-world applications as well. According to Alejandro Rabinstein, M.D. at the Mayo Clinic, deep space medical research will spill over into patient care on Earth. In 2018, he said, “I believe deep space medicine can be transformative and transcendent and can only enrich our knowledge about Earthbound human health.”
Dr. Rabinstein’s team includes professionals from numerous medical disciplines, including sleep medicine, psychology, genetics, nutrition, neurology, and telemedicine. The team’s work and study of the physical and psychological challenges of deep space travel will ultimately impact public health. The work of researchers at the Mayo Clinic is a recent example in a lengthy history of space-based medical research which dates back to 1958, the year NASA was established. In fact, NASA is partially responsible for a number of medical innovations, such as ear thermometers and implantable heart defibrillators.
Hunger is a major public health issue, with roughly 28.3 million adults and 12.9 million children considered food insecure in the U.S. in 2016. Food insecurity has direct and indirect impacts on physical and mental health, especially among children. Health conditions associated with food insecurity include birth defects, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and mental distress. The threat of continued food insecurity, especially within a growing global population, has led researchers to search for solutions on Earth and in space.
For many years, space-based researchers have studied the ability of plants to grow in zero-gravity environments to varying degrees of success. After a number of attempts, the first plant was successfully grown in space in 1982, aboard the Russian space station Salyut. While Arabidopsis thaliana (also known as thale cress) is not edible, the experiment paved the way for further plant cultivation in space. Today, astronauts aboard the ISS grow a variety of lettuce, peas, and radishes which help balance their diet while in flight.
But plant-based research in space isn’t limited to edible and ornamental plants. Many plants possess healing properties, and by studying those plants in a non-terrestrial environment, we can help cultivate a greater understanding of their effects and potential applications. Kratom, for example, has a number of varieties that produce different effects, and further research of the plant can help us gain a greater understanding of the benefits of each distinct strain.
NASA research has helped make strides in the treatment of a number of diseases and health conditions, from cancer to shingles and asthma. Researchers aboard the ISS have also played a role in vaccine development, using microgravity to aid in the search for vaccines against Salmonella bacteria. According to NASA, “The space environment has been shown to induce key changes in microbial cells that are directly relevant to infectious disease.” Those changes include improved microbial growth rates, antibiotic resistance, and genetic alterations.
Space-based research, therefore, has helped accelerate the study of epidemiology, which identifies the underlying causes of the spread of diseases. By looking at how a disease or virus reacts in a microgravity environment, researchers can develop new and improved therapeutics and agents designed to eradicate the pathogen.
The field of epidemiology has strongly benefited from space-based study, and the real-world implications of the research are vast. Epidemiologists work to investigate the overall cause of pathogen outbreaks, and what can be done to contain the spread. By utilizing the information uncovered by researchers in space, epidemiologists can gain a greater understanding of a variety of pathogens, as well as the efficacy of treatment options. This can improve overall public health on a large scale.
One of the biggest changes to space exploration in recent years is the duration of an astronaut’s time in space. In the early days of the space program, astronauts spent only a short amount of time in zero gravity. Today, however, space missions can last for several months or even longer. The record for the longest consecutive space flight is held by Russian Valeri Polyakov, who spent nearly 438 days on the Mir space station in the mid ‘90s.
While spending more than a year in space is no small feat, Polyakov’s journey is even more impressive considering that he had no medical care during his time off Earth. Telemedicine wasn’t even on the radar in the mid-1990s, and the internet was still in its early stages. Today’s astronauts have the benefit of internet-based communication and telemedicine, which allows them to have a virtual visit with a healthcare professional while in orbit.
Using a combination of monitoring equipment and video chat, healthcare professionals can monitor an astronaut’s overall health and symptoms, a process referred to as telehealth. While telehealth is often considered too impersonal, the technology is helping keep astronauts healthier than ever before. And the use of telemedicine is growing, both in space and on Earth. An estimated 7 million patients utilized telehealth services in 2018, and astronauts on the ISS were part of that number.
If current technological advancements and experiments are any indication, space-based research will continue to impact the future of medicine. The study of plants and epidemiology are part of the final frontier of medical research into the future, and advancements in telemedicine will help bring patient-centered care to underserved populations. To solve some of today’s public health issues, we need to look to the skies.