Researcher to examine health impacts of space travel in NASA twin study

April 8, 2014
Seeing double! Susan Bailey is one of just a few scientists nationwide picked to lead unprecedented investigation of the effects of space travel on twin astronauts.

When NASA sends an identical twin to the International Space Station next year, a Colorado State University researcher will be among just a few hand-picked scientists studying him and his brother to measure impacts of space travel on the human body.

Susan Bailey, an associate professor in CSU's Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences, is heading one of only 10 projects selected last month to receive funding from NASA for a three-year study of astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly.

Bailey's research focuses on chromosomal features, called , which help protect the body from aging and the cancer-causing effects of . Radiation exposure is a particular concern during flight – and therefore of special interest to NASA – because astronauts are bombarded by subatomic particles from the sun and other sources.

Starting in March 2015, Scott Kelly will spend 12 months on the space station, while Mark remains on Earth as an experimental control. Scientists will conduct tests on the genetically identical twins to isolate the effects detected in Scott's body that can be attributed to life in space.

In the CSU project, the first study of its kind, Bailey will use blood tests taken before, during and after the flight to focus on the twins' chromosomes. Each chromosome has a protective end-cap called a telomere, which Bailey compares to the plastic tip on a shoelace that keeps the lace from unraveling. As cells divide and replicate during the course of human life, the chromosomes divide as well, and the telomeres gradually erode, eventually leading to the natural death of cells.

Bailey says the erosion rate of these end-caps reveals a lot about a person's aging process and health. For instance, studies have shown that nonsmokers who get regular exercise often have longer telomeres than those who have unhealthy lifestyles. In her NASA research project, Bailey plans to gather baseline data on the twins' telomeres, then examine how the various demands of life in space – like exposure to radiation, limited diet, and physical and psychological stress –¬ affect those caps on Scott's chromosomes.

"Taking care of your telomeres is an important thing to do, and having a healthy lifestyle is a big part of that," she says, adding that previous studies have shown radiation can deteriorate the end caps in as little as five days. "Can you imagine a more stressful thing than strapping yourself in a rocket or living in space for a year?"

Bailey will also study the 50-year-old twins' levels of telomerase, an enzyme that restores telomeres and extends the life of cells. The substance is not typically active in the body after birth, with a few exceptions – like in , which have a competitive advantage over regular cells because telomerase gives them "immortal" status.

Bailey says that while some researchers have studied the concept that activating telomerase in healthy cells could actually improve health and possibly extend life, it's a double-edged sword because stimulating telomerase could also feed cancer cells. Clinical trials are being conducted with drugs that reduce telomerase levels as a cancer-fighting strategy.

"The fact that gets turned off after birth is truly a tumor suppressor," she says.

Bailey, who received her bachelor's degree in biological sciences from CSU in 1980, returned to campus 21 years later to study the effects of radiation on chromosomes with CSU professor Joel Bedford.

"It was full circle," she recalls, adding that she immediately became fascinated with the field. "I caught the bug. It was contagious."

Bailey's project, which netted $150,000 from NASA, is the latest of many in the CSU Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences to attract funding for the study of radiation and cancer. A team led by Michael Weil, a professor in the department, has long received NASA grant money to study the degree to which astronauts face elevated cancer risks from space radiation.

Explore further: Scientists discover new role for cell dark matter in genome integrity

Related Stories

Scientists discover new role for cell dark matter in genome integrity

October 3, 2013
University of Montreal researchers have discovered how telomerase, a molecule essential for cancer development, is directed to structures on our genome called telomeres in order to maintain its integrity and in turn, the ...

Researchers successfully map fountain of youth

March 27, 2013
In collaboration with an international research team, University of Copenhagen researchers have for the first time mapped telomerase, an enzyme which has a kind of rejuvenating effect on normal cell ageing. The findings have ...

For older men, short telomeres can be a sign of chronic stress

March 11, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Andrew Steptoe of University College London and his colleagues have found that telomere length can predict how long it takes older men to recover from stressful situations. Men with shorter telomeres have ...

Regulation of telomerase in stem cells and cancer cells

June 27, 2012
Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg have gained important insights for stem cell research which are also applicable to human tumours and could lead to the development of new ...

Researchers identify new potential target for cancer therapy

April 19, 2013
Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center have found that alternative splicing – a process that allows a single gene to code for multiple proteins – appears to be a new potential target for anti-telomerase cancer ...

Research reveals how cancer-driving enzyme works

May 6, 2011
Cancer researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center are helping unlock the cellular-level function of the telomerase enzyme, which is linked to the disease's growth.

Recommended for you

Molecular hitchhiker on human protein signals tumors to self-destruct

July 24, 2017
Powerful molecules can hitch rides on a plentiful human protein and signal tumors to self-destruct, a team of Vanderbilt University engineers found.

New vaccine production could improve flu shot accuracy

July 24, 2017
A new way of producing the seasonal flu vaccine could speed up the process and provide better protection against infection.

Researchers develop new method to generate human antibodies

July 24, 2017
An international team of scientists has developed a method to rapidly produce specific human antibodies in the laboratory. The technique, which will be described in a paper to be published July 24 in The Journal of Experimental ...

A sodium surprise: Engineers find unexpected result during cardiac research

July 20, 2017
Irregular heartbeat—or arrhythmia—can have sudden and often fatal consequences. A biomedical engineering team at Washington University in St. Louis examining molecular behavior in cardiac tissue recently made a surprising ...

Want to win at sports? Take a cue from these mighty mice

July 20, 2017
As student athletes hit training fields this summer to gain the competitive edge, a new study shows how the experiences of a tiny mouse can put them on the path to winning.

'Smart' robot technology could give stroke rehab a boost

July 19, 2017
Scientists say they have developed a "smart" robotic harness that might make it easier for people to learn to walk again after a stroke or spinal cord injury.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.