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Astronauts Collect Blood, Other Samples for Unprecedented Immune Study
Integrated Immune Sample Kit Astronaut kit for taking blood samples. Image credit: NASA/JSC
Expedition 16 crew members are working with a first-of-its-kind experiment, collecting their blood, saliva and urine samples to study their immune function in microgravity.

While previous studies conducted immediately after landing show dramatic changes in crew members' immune systems, the Integrated Immune experiment, or by its long name: the Validation of Procedures for Monitoring Crew Member Immune Function experiment is the only study to comprehensively monitor the human immune system before, during and after spaceflight. Dr. Clarence Sams at the Johnson Space Center in Houston is the principal investigator for the study that will determine the clinical risks due to the adverse effects of spaceflight on immunity and confirm an immune-monitoring strategy.

"Brief stress for astronauts such as launch and landing can alter immunity," said Dr. Brian Crucian, a co-investigator for the experiment with Wyle in Houston. "Landing is a significant stress on the human body and it somewhat skews the post-flight data we get from crew members. Since we don't know if the immune system changes during flight will resolve or worsen over a long-duration mission, this is a perfect opportunity to determine the status of immunity as it balances out during flight."

Determining any health risk related to the way the immune system works is important to exploration missions. Altered immunity for brief periods of time is perfectly normal and usually represents no serious health risk. But altered immunity during a long-duration space mission, coupled with the hazardous space environment and radiation exposure, could represent a very serious health risk to crew members.

To measure immune function, live cells from the blood must be analyzed fairly rapidly after the collection. For Integrated Immune, crew members will draw blood samples in special tubes that contain nutrients to keep the immune cells alive for at least 48 hours, so that analysis may be performed after the cells are returned to Earth. For this reason, crew samples will be collected as close to landing as possible.

Saliva samples are collected by crew members three times throughout their on-orbit stay. It's done two different ways. Liquid samples are collected by soaking a piece of cotton in their mouth and keeping it "wet" in a special bag. Dry samples are taken on filter paper bound in a small, specialized book. Researchers and crew members coordinate these activities through NASA's Payload Operations Center at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. – the science command post for the International Space Station.

In addition to these collections, blood, saliva and urine samples are taken before and after flight. Together, these results will give researchers a better understanding of whether observed immune system changes pose a risk to the crew. The findings also will help to identify whether countermeasures are needed to prevent immune dysfunction during exploration-class spaceflight.

On Earth, results of this experiment may lead to a greater understanding of how the immune system is affected by different factors such as stress or the environment. This data could potentially be used to help develop new treatments and preventative measures.

"We are extremely excited about this experiment and that so many shuttle and station crew members are participating," said Crucian. "During a long-duration lunar mission – where quick return to Earth will be impossible – any infection could potentially impact the mission. That's why it is important to determine the status of immunity now using the space station, to allow future exploration missions to occur safely."

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Lori Meggs
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center