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NIH Grant Recipient: Dr. Declan McCole
Declan McCole Dr. Declan McCole. (Photo courtesy of University of California, San Diego, Division of Gastroenterology) Dr. Declan McCole submitted one of three winning scientific proposals for the National Institute of Health (NIH) Biomedical Research on the International Space Station (BioMed-ISS) award. This prize encourages investigators to pursue biomedical research in the unique environment of space, using the resources of the space station to test health-related hypothesis. The unified goal of NASA and the NIH through this grant is to benefit both space- and Earth-related human health interests.

Dr. McCole holds a Ph.D. in Pharmacology and Veterinary Medical Research from University College Dublin, Ireland. Currently he is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Gastroenterology at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine. He has devoted much of his career to studies related to gastrointestinal or GI tract-related illness and disease, leading to multiple awards and prizes for his research. The NIH is funding his proposal titled, Novel Effects of Microgravity on Intestinal Epithelial Barrier Responses to Alcohol-Induced Permeability. Dr. McCole explains his interest in microgravity research, "The International Space Station offers a completely unique environment in which to test fundamental basic biology. It allows us to test under controlled conditions what happens to the cell function, and the behavior of specific molecules when we remove one of the fundamental physical forces that governs everyday human activity, gravity."

Looking at the impact of excessive alcohol use on the GI tract breaks new ground. Dr. McCole points out, "The effects of microgravity on intestinal epithelial cell barrier function have not been previously studied. Therefore, it is vital to pursue this area of investigation as it has important consequences for human health." Alcohol diminishes the ability of these cells to act as a natural barrier in the GI tract. Reducing this beneficial obstruction allows toxins to freely move about the body with potentially catastrophic effects to human health.

Dr. McCole will use 3-D cell modeling, a technique uniquely applied in microgravity, to study properties of epithelial cells that form the intestinal wall barrier, including how the absence of gravity impacts the destructive effects of alcohol. He conjectures, "When one considers the convoluted nature of the intestine inside the abdominal cavity, it is likely that some cells and intestinal regions are operating under conditions that reflect a range of reduced gravitational forces." In addition, Dr. McCole hopes this research will reveal whether microgravity changes the impact of alcohol on barrier function, and if the cells show adaptive properties that could help maintain an intact barrier.

Improving intestinal health in humans using a space laboratory can lead to Earth benefits. Dr. McCole explains, "These studies will likely identify new molecular targets that could be exploited on Earth to better enhance the barrier function of the intestinal epithelium against the effects of alcohol." While alcohol is the compound used in this study, there are other catalysts that could negatively impact the barrier properties of the intestine, including pharmaceuticals and infections.

The value of the BioMed-ISS partnership, however, is not limited to individual experiments. "In this day and age," Dr. McCole states, "when researchers face acute funding pressures and the demand for immediate results and cost-benefit outcomes, this can often lead to incremental or risk-free science. The idea of studying biological principles in space, and translating those to human physiology and disease, is truly inspiring. This opportunity brings us back to an age when scientists were less conservative in their thinking and asked 'big' questions. The space station challenges scientists to dream."

Congratulations to Dr. McCole and the other NIH grant recipients: Dr. Paola Divieti Pajevic and Dr. Millie Hughes-Fulford.
by Jessica Nimon
NASA's Johnson Space Center
International Space Station Program Science Office