What is the problem Astro-Omics seeks to solve?

How does long-term exposure to the environment of space affect the human body?

The space environment is an entirely new experience for the human body and has a significant impact on the function of the body’s many systems, altering overall physiology, cellular physiology, cardio-function, immune function, circadian system function and psychological well-being. On Earth, we are safely secured by the planet’s gravity and atmosphere. We have extreme mobility, along with the freedom to enjoy the company of whomever we choose. The air that we breathe is freshly synthesized by plants, not carried in tanks, made by electrolysis or produced from recycled carbon dioxide. The daily sunrise and sunset cue our internal clock.

Conversely, though we try to simulate the natural qualities of Earth in spacecraft, astronauts still suffer from adverse effects due to the drastic differences between Earth’s environment and the space environment.

Many of these adverse effects stem from a lack of gravity. Beyond the basic spatial disorientation and decompression sickness that many astronauts encounter, there are other deleterious health consequences than can be seen superficially. In essence, the human body is able to adapt to the space environment, but at the cost of alterations to its basic systems. On Earth, for instance, the heart must work to pump blood to all of the extremities of the human body, fighting the force of gravity. In space, there is no gravity, and the blood in an astronaut’s cardiovascular system pools in their head, causing something many call “puffy face syndrome.” While the lack of gravity facilitates external changes, it also causes vital heart muscles to shrink due to a lack of muscular demand. That is, without the added work of fighting gravity, some of the muscles in the heart become unnecessary, leading to atrophy. This becomes an issue when astronauts return to Earth and need these muscles again.

In addition, blood cells function differently in the conditions of space. For instance, the T-cells, which play a key role in cell-mediated immunity, do not reproduce properly in space. Such factors, including isolation and lowered cleanliness, work additively to lower the efficiency of the immune system. Indeed, recent studies have shown that astronauts are more susceptible to many viruses, with incidence of the Epstein-Barr virus increased in astronauts by a factor of 8 to 10. Wounds also heal more slowly in space, due to the negative effects of microgravity upon an astronaut’s physiology.  Even the volume of blood in the body decreases, a change that drastically affects astronauts upon their return back to Earth.

Astronauts also suffer from disrupted sleep cycles and shifted circadian rhythms, resulting from the constant noise, strange environment and irregular changes in lighting (retinal responses to sunlight are involved in modulating the body’s “internal clock”). In fact, many astronauts only get a few hours of sleep a night, further impeding the efficacy of the immune system, impairing memory consolidation and cell restoration, and causing fatigue.

Moreover, a loss of bone and muscle plagues every astronaut, increasing exponentially with the amount of time spent in space. Even with daily exercise,  dietary supplements, and other preventative measures, medical experts have not succeeded in completely halting bone and muscle loss. The only true solution is artificial gravity, which takes power and can only be partially produced (at this point in time).

Several health problems present themselves only after return from the space environment, and can subsist for long periods of time, even after re-acclimation to the Earth environment. A prime example is the recent discovery that extended exposure to the space environment can cause damage to eyesight. While most female astronauts seem unaffected, many returning male astronauts (though, not all) suffer from decreased visual acuity. Whether from shifting fluids due to microgravity, or intracranial pressure, this could be a major issue for the future of space travel.

Also, radiation can cause a multitude of additional problems in the human body. High dose-rate radiation, occurring during maximum solar activity, causes acute radiation sickness. Meanwhile, low dose-rate radiation can cause cancers, neurologic and cardiovascular  deficits, infertility and so on. Radiation can also facilitate mutations in the intra-cellular genetic code. When combined with the effects of microgravity, radiation stands as a great obstacle in the way of space exploration.

How does Astro-Omics seek to prevent and mitigate these obstacles?

Astro-Omics is a fairly new field,  still in the early stages of development, but this nascent area of study already shows great promise for the future of space exploration. The ending “Omics” refers to the field of science that addresses not only the function of individual biological systems of the human body, but how they interact in a complex “systems” fashion. The prefix “Astro” narrows the scope of this field to factors and variables that specifically impact the interdependent function of these systems when they operate in a space environment (with all that entails). Currently, Astro-Omics can be defined broadly as “personalized medicine with a systems biological approach”, primarily geared towards optimizing health and biological function both in space and after long-term exposure to the space environment. It uses techniques such as proteomics, metabolomics and genomics to acquire and utilize individual data. This new approach to the obstacles of space travel is one component of a larger progressive scientific advance on Earth, where many are praising personalized medicine as the future of medicine. Indeed, to explore the unknown reaches of space, we will need  to harness the full extent of medical knowledge and capabilities on Earth, including even those fields that are still in the stages of discovery (i.e. anti-viral medicine, cutting-edge neuroscience, genetic screening, etc.).

The core principle of Astro-Omics lies in the concept of personalized medicine — a way of tailoring healthcare to the individual. Personalized medicine utilizes information about an individual’s genomic, proteomic, and metabolic profile in the context  of environmental factors and lifestyle factors to prevent, diagnose and treat disease. This approach to medicine has had some successes here on Earth. As just one of many examples, one gene,–Her2/neu– has successfully been identified and used (through genetic screening) as a predictor of breast cancer patients’ responses to the drug Herceptin. This field has also been successful in treating Chronic Myeloid Leukemia through the use of tyrosine kinase inhibitors. Personalized medicine is revolutionizing, and will continue to alter, the way that doctors go about treating their patients. It allows individual levels of proteins, gene variants, and individualized mutations, as well as individual systemic profiles (stress response, cardio-response, etc.),  to dictate the most effective treatment for an individual. And, by identifying certain individualized risk factors, personalized medicine can prevent certain diseases before they even have a chance to strike. Astro-Omics is mostly associated with the genomic factors in personalized medicine, but other individual characteristics such as proteins and environmental factors can alter the treatment plan as well.

The Inspiration Mars[1] approach to crew health and safety, which is developing rapidly, is perhaps the exemplar of Astro-Omics. A vast majority of their plan encompasses the essence of Astro-Omics. In crew selection, they will be conducting -omics based analyses of each candidate to find individuals with systems most suitable to the conditions of space travel. Those with fewer risk genes and favorable traits (i.e. better health) will be deemed the “best of the bunch”. By completely screening each candidate’s genome and by observing all of the biological systems at once, scientists will be able to choose the best candidates out of a large pool of applicants. Throughout their training, these candidates will be monitored through -omics based analysis. Moreover, several specific -omics based “countermeasures” will be designed and tested –“countermeasures” meaning individually-tailored strategies to counteract, or prevent, the negative effects of space travel. By the time these candidates are sent on their mission, the Inspiration Mars team plans to have designed and tested personalized-medicine-based countermeasures for each individual in preparation for both predicted issues and contingencies (these will be formulated based on collected data). Even upon their return home, these candidates will continue to be treated with personalized, -omics based medicine. Inspiration Mars will also continue to use Astro-Omics as a research mechanism, exploring the basic biological differences that can cause such variation in individual reactions to the conditions of space. Indeed, while some astronauts find themselves struggling to adapt in the space environment, others excel in it. While some astronauts find their vision impaired upon their return to Earth, others suffer no noticeable changes. The question is: What makes one individual susceptible to such health consequences, while another may be unaffected? The answer lies in the basic systems of the human body — genetic, psychological, proteomic, etc. — that can be explored through Astro-Omics.

Astro-Omics is a revolutionary new field, and exemplifies the innovation that will be required for humankind to successfully journey to Mars and beyond. Presently, few people even know what Astro-Omics is, and much is still left to be discovered in this field. You can be certain, though, that when the first group of astronauts sets off to Mars, a large part of their success will be the result of Astro-Omics and advances made in this new realm of medicine.


[1] Inspiration Mars is a non-profit organization seeking to send a two-man American crew to travel around Mars and then return to Earth, for the purpose of generating knowledge, experience, and momentum for the exploration of Mars.