Tackling a typical drawback for astronauts and the aged: loneliness

How disparate government agencies are combining their efforts to help the space program.

Elderly Americans living alone and astronauts heading to Mars may not seem to have much in common. But different corners of the government are working together to solve a challenge both groups face: loneliness.

NASA is partnering with the Department of Health and Human Services and its National Institutes of Health to find ways to help both groups. Facilitating that cooperation falls to Christopher Austin, the director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at NIH who also serves as the Health and Human Services liaison to NASA.

“There’s real concern [astronauts going to Mars]…would literally lose their minds,” Austin says. “It’s another example of how we’re hoping that by working together, NASA will get out of it what they need, but HHS will get out of it what they need.”

The two agencies are separately planning to put a number of small chips aboard the International Space Station that contain human cells and function like a human body part as part of their combined efforts to advance space medicine to match NASA big human exploration goals.

“This is a kidney,” he explained at a Washington cafe, pulling a 2-inch square plastic container out of his pocket that includes an area where human kidney cells filter the blood like a kidney would and a can test test if the filtration is effective.

But conducting such experiments and testing new pharmaceuticals in space, where astronauts like their elderly Earthly counterparts suffer from physical wear and tear like osteoporosis, muscle loss and a weakening of the immune system, can speed up how quickly scientists get results.

“A lot of the things that affect humans on Earth slowly affect astronauts much more rapidly,” Austin explains. “That’s a real problem for NASA, but it’s a real opportunity for us…to study these disorders on a time scale that would take years and years on Earth.”

Austin also spoke bout how privatizing the International Space Station could impact his research and what scientists can accomplish do on NASA’s proposed Lunar Gateway.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

What is your mission with the National Institutes of Health?

The overall [National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences] mission is to identify and eliminate the roadblocks that are preventing all the wonderful advances in fundamental science from reaching patients…How does that get us to space? It’s actually quite direct. One of the major reasons therapeutics never get made is we either don’t fully understand…the human disease or we can’t develop a drug that’s safe and effective in a human…That led us to develop this technology that essentially…[uses] engineering and microfluidics, stem cells, tissue 3-D printing…[to] make little human organs [on small chips]…as a testing system for new drugs that [is] more reliable and quicker, faster and cheaper than animals.

A lot of the things that affect humans on Earth slowly affect astronauts much more rapidly and they’re big problems for astronauts: osteoporosis, muscle loss, a loss of normal functioning of the immune system, which happens in older people, which is why they get flu and shingles and pneumonia. They get kidney stones. All these things happen very rapidly to astronauts in space. That’s a real problem for NASA, but it’s a real opportunity for us, an opportunity to study these disorders on a time scale that would take years and years on Earth, but happen in a couple of weeks on a space station…If you’re trying to figure out how to make a new osteoporosis drug and you have to wait 10 years to find out if your drug works, things are going to happen very slowly. If you’re able to do the same experiment in two weeks, you’ve now sped up the process.

From the NASA perspective, these things are major problems for the Mars mission, because if these things happen in two weeks at the international Space Station, for people who are in microgravity for three years going to Mars, these are potentially life threatening.

But they can’t experiment on their own astronauts, so essentially the way to think about this is, these [chips] are little astronauts that we can put into the space station, but we can put dozens of them, hundreds of them [into space.]

The technological modifications that have to happen to allow something like this to go to space are the kinds of modifications that allow this technology to be more useful on Earth…All of the stuff to support [the chips] is about the size of a kitchen refrigerator…You can’t put all that stuff up on the space station. We said, we have to make this more user friendly, so the average scientist who’s not an expert can use this…and our people just said it’s impossible, we need our refrigerator.

So we went to NASA and said we’re really sorry, it’s refrigerator or nothing. And they said, we can help with that, we have a whole group of people who know how to take big complicated things and shrink them to be the size you need to go into space…So in the course of less than a year, they went from a big contraption the size of a fridge to something the size of a shoe box and that is what went up to the space station.

What does your job as the Health and Human Services Liaison to NASA involve?

I was asked…can you do this [partnering with NASA] for all HHS?…We’ve now brought in [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]…and [the Food and Drug Administration]…doing projects with NASA.

The most interesting one so far…is with the the Administration for Community Living . It’s part of HHS…What it focuses on is how to design housing and communities to make them optimal for health and well-being. So one of the problems they’re most worried about — and it’s a big problem for NASA — is isolation…Most elderly people end up living by themselves and…the health effect of living by yourself is about the same as smoking two packs a day. It’s very bad for you to live by yourself.

One of the things NASA is most worried about is, if you take astronauts and you send them to Mars, it’s six months to Mars, 20 months on the planet before you can get the right orbits, then six months back to Earth. It’s three years and you’re either by yourself or with the same five people, totally enclosed. You can never go outside. For three years, you are in a suit or in something the size of a tractor trailer. What would that do to your head?…There’s real concern these people would go psychotic. They would literally lose their minds.

When we heard this we thought ACL and NASA have a lot in common. But ACL isn’t going to experiment on people. NASA has to experiment with this, or else this could be mission failure. So it’s another example of how we’re hoping working together, NASA will get out of it what they need, but HHS will get out of it what they need.

What does CDC have to do with NASA? It turns out, the space station takes on the microbiome [the germs that live on every person] of the astronauts who are there…Imagine you’re going to Mars for three years with the same people and let’s say there are microbiomes that don’t get along, or those bugs get together…and exchange genetic material to make new superbugs…If you’re a bug, being in the same closed environment for three years, that is so darn cool. That gives you the opportunity to evolve all kinds of nastiness that you could never do on Earth. The CDC finds that problem all the time in hospitals, but it’s an extreme problem in space, so it’s another example of something that happens very commonly on Earth, but it happens very slowly in an uncontrolled way. In space, it’s mission critical and could end up killing people.

Has the shutdown ground this work to a halt?

Yeah. We have to cancel about a phone call a week, because we have very regular phone calls with our NASA colleagues.

How would privatizing the International Space Station impact your work?

We’ve talked about this a lot…The work that NIH does by definition…would not be done by the private sector. That’s why we do it. If it can be done by the private sector, we’re not going to do it…If this was totally privatized, it’s hard to see how we would continue this. It would increase the cost dramatically, because we would have to carry the full freight, so to speak.

What we understand from [the space station’s national lab, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space] and NASA is what’s being contemplated is the ISS will still have a portion function as a national lab, which is what it is now. The desire is to…diversify the sources of income and allow NASA to do other things as opposed to totally privatizing it. It is interesting though.

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