In-Flight Data Needed to Investigate Microgravity Immune System Changes
The spaceflight and research communities take full advantage of the International Space Station research platform, which enables them to investigate human immune system changes during spaceflight and extended stays in microgravity. Factors that may influence astronauts' immune systems include effects of radiation, microgravity, and physiological stress -- confinement, isolation, disrupted circadian rhythms.
Integrated Immune, also known as Validation of Procedures for Monitoring Crew Member Immune Function, is a human research and immune system investigation on station. This study uses a monitoring strategy to find effective countermeasures to safeguard crew members during long-duration space flights. Results from this investigation also may help doctors understand how various factors on Earth impact our immune systems, allowing for the development of new treatments and prevention techniques.
In an interview, Brian Crucian, immunologist at NASA's Johnson Space Center, said that for decades, research has been done on this subject, but post-flight blood and urine samples do not tell the whole story, and on-orbit samples are typically frozen for return, rather than available for live study. "[The] human immune system is altered during spaceflight. We're unsure of exactly what the nature of that change is though. What's unique about our blood collections … we need live immune cells to gauge their functional capacity. We need to collect our samples during docked operations of some vehicle, right before hatch closure and undocking of that vehicle so they can return our samples …within 48 to 72 hours."
During the interview, Crucian provides details of the investigation, including how the station crew uses a blood sample collection kit designed for the study. Crucian describes some analysis procedures, as well. Immune system changes -- hypersensitivities, allergic responses, infectious diseases -- seen during spaceflight could be an issue during longer-duration exploration missions, like trips to Mars or an asteroid.