The Final Frontier of Human Disease: Vaccine Research in Space5 min read

Often when the world gets excited about the science conducted in space, it revolves around a few big ideas. Finding water on other earth-like planets, evidence of life in any form, and new technology that will allow for interstellar travel generally grip the world’s imagination, but in all the excitement, we tend to gloss over the more practical discoveries. The research conducted in space does not always have to be sexy to be amazing.

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The scientific problems we unravel in space can have an immediate and lasting impact at home. While eventually leaving our home planet for somewhere with unspoiled resources and habitat is a lofty and noble goal, humanity still has a long way to go before that is a tangible possibility. So, why not use the findings we discover in outer space to make our time on Earth that much more comfortable? Conducting important vaccine research in space may be the key to curing many of humanity’s most persistent and devastating illnesses.

Previous Findings

Since its launch, the International Space Station has made scientific leaps and bounds in the field of human health. Using the unique environment offered by a laboratory staged in zero gravity, scientists aboard the ISS have been able to glean new insights into the ways that diseases, viruses, and bacteria operate and develop. This information has helped scientists invent new devices that are changing the landscape of the medical field from diagnosis to treatment.

A deeper understanding of capillary flow gained by scientists on the ISS has allowed scientists on Earth to create a low-energy device that can rapidly detect and diagnose diseases on-site.  This new technology would be especially helpful in rural or remote areas that have limited access to power, and it reduces the time between diagnosis and treatment. The ability to rapidly detect diseases and viruses has the potential to save an immense number of lives, and the scientists on the ISS engaging in this unique public health research are making it possible. Studying epidemiology isn’t a new idea, and it has helped protect the public’s health for centuries. The unique data gathered on the ISS will help pioneer treatments of both communicable and non-communicable diseases.

Early detection of diseases like tuberculosis can help to prevent them from developing and becoming much more serious. While tuberculosis blood tests can already provide accurate diagnosis of TB, further advancement of detection methods made possible by research on the ISS could lead to even faster, more accurate detection of the disease. Ideally, this would eventually lead to the outright eradication of tuberculosis in the human population, finally ridding us of one of the world’s most notorious maladies.

Vaccinations

Beyond pioneering detection of infectious diseases, the International Space Station also plays a role in the development of vaccines to treat and prevent disease. Again taking advantage of microgravity, scientists of the ISS have made significant progress towards treatments for, and a vaccine against, Salmonella bacteria. Diarrhea caused by Salmonella remains one of the highest causes of infant mortality, and the prospect of finding a cure could have untold positive impacts on developing countries.

Virtually the entire human population has one or more of the eight herpes viruses that may reside in the human body.The stress of space travel can cause these herpes viruses to reactivate, resulting in painful cold sores or the development of shingles. Luckily for the folks back on Earth, the astronauts on the ISS have a particularly vested interest in preventing themselves from developing painful shingles either on the way to, or back from space. Early detection of immune changes allow for the prevention of shingles both in space and back on our home planet.

The immune system is compromised in outer space due to long-term exposure to zero-gravity, constant contact in close quarters with their fellow astronauts, and the very environment of the space station they live in. A warm, climate-controlled, sealed environment is an absolute playground for bacteria and viruses, but this also makes it the ideal setting to develop vaccines in space that can also help on Earth. By studying how our immune systems uniquely respond to viruses and bacteria in space helps scientists to develop vaccines that would have been impossible on Earth.

Current Projects

Just this year, scientists on the ISS have begun structural research on protein candidates for an AIDS vaccine both on Earth and in space conditions. The goal is to create a new generation of antiviral vaccines based on artificial proteins with predetermined antigenicity and immunogenicity. The ability to produce these protein crystals in microgravity will make it infinitely easier to obtain high-quality protein crystals on Earth.

A recently developed, early-phase trial drug called the Theravax HSV-2 vaccine has been touted as not only a treatment, but a possible cure for herpes. While the discovery of this vaccine was made on Earth, studying it in a microgravity setting could boost the efficacy in unimaginable ways. This could lead to the eradication of the herpes simplex virus completely within our lifetime.

The most exciting thing about these advances, especially that of an AIDS vaccine, is the prospect of the eventual curing of all STIs, and any viral or bacterial infection across the board. By studying these ailments in outer space, scientists are unlocking secrets that never would have presented themselves on Earth. Scientists are rapidly approaching a point where we may possibly rid humankind of disease entirely.

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Avery Phillips is a freelance human based out of the beautiful Treasure Valley. She loves all things nature, especially humans, and was driven to pursue an Anthropology degree due to her childhood love of Indiana Jones and Laura Croft. Now she lovingly writes about all things great and small.

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