Friday Think: a vaccine trial with a cosmic twist

Over the next year, twin astronauts play a role in an experiment that involves the International Space Station.
The International Space Station.
A view of the International Space Station and Earth from the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Photo: NASA/Crew of STS-132.

Orbiting 249 miles above our terrestrial home is the International Space Station (ISS), the largest peace-time international project in human history. It’s also one of the sites of a year-long experiment involving twin astronauts, Mark and Scott Kelly.

The subject? Flu shots with a twist.

Earlier this year, both brothers received their flu vaccinations. But while Mark stayed home on terra firma, Scott Kelly took a ride up to the ISS for a year-long stint. Both brothers will continue to be studied by NASA researchers to track how extended stays in space affect human immune systems. They’ll receive a second flu shot in November, this time while Mark is on Earth and Scott is aboard the ISS.

Francesco Berlanda-Scorza, a senior technical officer in PATH’s Vaccine Development Program, is keenly aware of the challenges hard-to-reach locations can pose during vaccine trials, let alone one that is miles above the surface of Earth. He shares this perspective after reading a recent article in Time:

“As a scientist in influenza vaccine development, I find this rare opportunity to compare the effect of a flu shot between an astronaut in space and his twin brother on Earth fascinating. This is a truly remote location for a vaccine trial, with many activities (like centrifuging blood samples) happening above our heads.”

Francesco adds, “With this study, NASA is trying to better understand immunological changes in space by studying the well-defined response to the flu shot. Although the study is small, I look forward to getting a glimpse into how the immune system activates in starkly contrasting environments as well as how others creatively approach collecting data in settings seemingly beyond this realm.”

Here’s an excerpt from journalist Jeffrey Kluger’s article “How Vaccines in Space Can Help on Earth”:

Bacteria and viruses adore the environment of a spacecraft: it’s warm, it’s sealed, it’s climate-controlled, and best of all it’s full of people who have nowhere to go and no way to avoid sharing any stray germs they might have brought with them.

That’s especially true aboard the International Space Station (ISS), where crews rotate in and out and can stay for many months at a time, and where residents’ immune systems—flummoxed by long-term exposure to zero-g—are unable to function as they should….

The article provides some detail on how NASA researchers plan to track the brothers’ twin immune systems during the trial. In particular, how Scott’s immune system reacts while in space, and how it recovers after he returns to Earth.

In space, some of the immune system’s billions of cells begin to change in shape and function, especially the critical T-cells—and none of it is for the better.

“There is suppression of T-cell activation pathways,” says Dr. Emmanuel Mignot, an immune system specialist and one of the year-in-space mission’s medical investigators….

Making things worse, while the ISS is hardly germ-free, it’s a lot more antiseptic than Earth is, and that means the body can get forgetful, unlearning some of the immunities it’s acquired over the years. “The immune system needs to be challenged,” says Mignot. If it isn’t, it grows slack.

In all of the samples, Mignot will be scrutinizing the brothers’ twin immune responses in ways that haven’t been possible before. “We’ll be using a new technique that recognizes just pieces of the virus,” he says. “It’s quite sophisticated; we’ll have ideas both of the strength and qualitative nature of the immune response.”

Read this article in its entirety online at Time.com.

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During the week we scour the news for the hottest stories on innovation. Our feature, The Friday Think, highlights one we’ve found particularly fascinating.

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