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NIH Grant Recipient Dr. Millie Hughes-Fulford
Dr. Millie Hughes Fulford Dr. Millie Hughes-Fulford. (Photo courtesy of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, San Francisco) Three scientific proposals won the National Institute of Health ((NIH) Biomedical Research on the International Space Station (BioMed-ISS) award this past September. With the BioMed-ISS goal of meeting both space and human health interests, it is particularly poetic to see Dr. Millie Hughes-Fulford among the grantees. A Ph.D. from Texas, Dr. Hughes-Fulford also served with the U.S. Army Reserve Medical Corps and is a former NASA astronaut. She understands firsthand the importance of biomedical research to the future of space exploration, “We study immunosuppression in spaceflight because during the Apollo era over 15 of the 29 astronauts had an infection either during flight or during the first week of return.”

Dr. Hughes-Fulford now works with the Northern California Institute for Research and Education, San Francisco, as well as serving as a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and as a principal investigator with the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center San Francisco. Her winning NIH proposal topic addresses the immune system and related suppression during space flight. Results from this experiment also benefit people on Earth with reduced immune functions, like the elderly and cancer patients. Dr. Hughes-Fulford details her objective, “We are preparing for our new NIH experiments on [the space station] to further study the mechanisms behind the immunosuppression of spaceflight and the possible correlation with the immunosuppression of aging.”

Microgravity research is not new to Dr. Hughes-Fulford, who served in 1991 as a payload specialist on STS-40, the first Spacelab Life Sciences (SLS 1) shuttle mission. This flight, dedicated to biomedical studies, brought back more medical data than any previous NASA voyage. Dr. Hughes-Fulford later returned to space science as an Earth-bound investigator for the Leukin, PADIAC, and PKinase experiments. The most recent of these, PADIAC, launched in 2010 as a follow up to confirm the initial findings from Leukin.

These studies examined the suppression of astronaut immune systems after flight. Preliminary data suggest that a direct gravity effect impacts the maturation process of infection-fighting white blood cells. Dr. Hughes-Fulford explains, “With Leukin we were able to study the activation of human T cells; we analyzed the entire human genome and found for the first time that in spaceflight there are approximately 100 specific genes that require gravity for normal T cell activation.” Through space station research, Dr. Hughes-Fulford identified necessary pathways for early T cell activation, some of which require gravity to perform normally. This T cell activation is necessary to activate the immune system in response to an infection.

The goal of these experiments is to develop approaches to mitigate immunosuppression, potentially through a gravity stimulus like exercise. Dr. Hughes-Fulford points out the connection between the future of space science and Earth benefits via space station research, “I see a new era of discovery—using microgravity to help us understand the basic laws of biology and physiology…We hope to find the underlying causes of the immune-suppression of space and apply that knowledge to immune disease on the ground.” The combined efforts of NIH-sponsored scientists and ISS stand to benefit both Earth and space research. Congratulations to Dr. Hughes-Fulford and the other NIH grant recipients: Dr. Declan McCole and Dr. Paola Divieti Pajevic.
by Jessica Nimon
NASA's Johnson Space Center
International Space Station Program Science Office