OMNI scientist Szewczyk is collaborating on a proposal that could revolutionize space medicine and improve astronaut health
Often when researching the molecular and biological changes that occur in space, models such as rodents, worms, and yeasts are used to study the effects and consequences of long-duration spaceflight in order to understand how microgravity affects humans in space. However, Nate Szewczyk, Ph.D., of OHIO, and several other researchers around the world have published a paper that proposes a program for the European Space Agency that could potentially revolutionize space medicine by routinely collecting biological samples from astronauts to use them with advanced technologies to understand the effects on their genes, mRNA, proteins and metabolites (commonly referred to as “omics” technologies).
The article, titled “Collection of routine omics is a golden opportunity for European human research in spatial and analog environments”, published in the journal Grounds, details how omics profiling is being designed to transform space medicine and improve occupational health care for astronauts. The paper’s authors anticipate that omics profiling will improve astronaut health and mitigate spaceflight risk, which could increase mission success in more ambitious projects such as trips to Mars. The group of researchers goes on to outline in the article the collaborative steps that should be taken to design a standardized data resource that can be used for years to come as data and science evolve.
“We lobbied for a routine omics collection program to be part of the standard measurement for European Space Agency astronauts,” Szewczyk said. “By collecting and analyzing this data, we have the opportunity to further investigate best practices in personalized medicine for individuals in space.”
A sister study was carried out by NASA in which the organization performed molecular profiling of an individual, which showed that it is possible to use big data approaches to understand the health of astronauts. In the NASA study, they measured how fit the astronaut was before the flight, in flight and after the flight to gather their health information and how it can fluctuate in space. After being able to analyze and see the usefulness of this large dataset, NASA decided to make it a standard approach in the future.
“We took advantage of the fact that NASA adopted this standard practice because we believe it is something that other space agencies need to address to ensure that they find the best approach for the health of their astronauts in space,” Szewczyk added.
One of Szewczyk’s colleagues, Brian Clark, Ph.D., who directs the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute (OMNI) at OHIO, noted “this is an exciting time for the field of astrobiology. For decades we have known that spaceflight poses substantial risks to human health and that the physiological effects of prolonged spaceflight vary greatly from person to person. If you look at ten people who spend six months on the International Space Station, you’ll see drastically different reactions between people when it comes to the amount of muscle and bone loss they experience. Some suffer huge losses while others fare considerably better. The advent of omics technologies is clearly our best bet to understanding what drives this variability and truly advancing personalized space medicine. The insights to be gained from these types of studies extend far beyond the limits of outer space and have implications for mainstream medicine, such as understanding the impact of prolonged disuse that occurs following injury, reconstructive surgery and illness. It’s great to see this call to action and we are extremely proud of Nate’s stature and influence in the field of space medicine.
The team that co-authored the paper is made up of scientists, including Szewczyk, whose work focuses on spatial omics. They are tasked with examining how NASA made the decision to take an omics approach to understanding the molecular and biological impact of astronauts in space and whether this metric is something the European Space Agency should also track.
In addition to identifying whether this practice is beneficial to other space agencies, what types of data to collect, what sampling methods to use and when, they also examine what can be measured by multi-omics approaches, such as that astronaut genomes and what genes are expressed, what metabolites are present, are there changes in proteins, etc.
“Thanks to scientific innovations, instead of measuring patterns and translating that data to humans, we are now able to measure people and look at an individual’s genome and predict if their genome is at risk for cancer. or diabetes, or whether a specific drug may or may not work on them based on their genome,” Szewczyk said. “This is an opportunity to take the same modern molecular medicine approaches and use them on astronauts to identify potential health risks. It is more meaningful than using models and a real opportunity for all space agencies to know and say that the astronauts they send into space are and will be safe.
In addition to providing insight into how routine omics collection can improve astronaut health, the research team also assesses ethical and legal considerations relevant to omics data from European astronauts and space travel participants. spaceflight, with the aim of creating a political landscape where data can be as open as possible to maximize scientific potential but as closed as necessary to protect data subjects.
Szewczyk is a Ralph S. Licklider Osteopathic Heritage Foundation, DO Endowed Professor of Molecular Medicine and Principal Investigator of the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute at the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. He’s flown worms in space before, analyzing what changed in them in space and comparing gene expressions in space with rodents and astronauts, looking for commonalities in the change like proteins that allow muscles to function and the proteins that allow cells to produce energy. He is currently tracking findings from those past flights on two new surveys that are due to travel to the International Space Station in the coming years.