The Key to Surviving Space Radiation?

What do The Andromeda Strain, Project Hail Mary, and extremophiles have in common? If you answered survival, you’d be partly correct. The results of an experiment on the International Space Station may be the key to surviving space radiation. Or is it proof that life can (has) spread through the universe?

Image of the international space station in the blackness of space radiation with the blue arc of Earth beneath it

Radiation in Space

We’ve all heard about it. Scientists have studied its effects on meteors and rockets and astronauts for years.

Space radiation is made up of three kinds of radiation: particles trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field; particles shot into space during solar flares (solar particle events); and galactic cosmic rays, which are high-energy protons and heavy ions from outside our solar system.

NASA

This is of particular concern when astronauts travel beyond low Earth orbit. Space radiation may place astronauts at significant risk for radiation sickness, and increased lifetime risk for cancer, central nervous system effects, and degenerative diseases. On a trip to and from Mars, astronauts will endure at least fourteen months of radiation exposure. Depending on their mission, it may be many months more. Space radiation is of increasing concern here on Earth as the protective layers of atmosphere above us grow thinner.

Starting the Experiment

In 2015, the robotic arm on the International Space Station mounted three boxes of balls of extremophiles on a handrail. They stayed there, 250 miles above Earth, soaking up all forms of space radiation. They also endured the vacuum of space and extreme temperature swings as the station rotated in and out of the sunlight.

What are extremophiles?

Extremophiles are organisms that live in extreme conditions, such as in a hot spring or an ice cap or an under sea volcanic vent.

In the late 1960s, a microbiologist named Tom Brock discovered and identified the first extremophile in the Great Fountain region of Yellowstone. Since Brock and his colleague identified the microorganism, more and more extremophiles have been discovered. Microbiologists and astrobiologists have studied the organisms ever since. They estimate extremophiles have lived on Earth for more than forty million years. 

The Experiment

Three panels of the bacteria, Deinococcus radiodurans, arrived on the space station via a SpaceX rocket. 

According to smithsonianmag.com each panel contained two small aluminum plates dotted with twenty shallow wells for different-sized masses of bacteria. The largest of the masses, or balls, of bacteria was thinner than a millimeter.

They positioned one panel pointed down toward the International Space Station; the other pointed out toward the cosmos. Astronauts collected one panel after it was in place for a year and sent it back to Earth for study. They colleced the second panel and sent back after two years’ exposure. They collected the third panel at the end of the third year and sent it to Earth.

The results showed the outer layers of the balls, or masses, of bacteria died and while those inside survived. 

How’d The Cells Survive?

Image of the Milky Way looks like a "cloud" of stars, a highway across the night sky and it's hard to imagine how much space radiation is up there.

The articles I read implied the cells balled up into layers as a protective mechanism, an instinct, so to speak. In addition, this particular bacteria carries up to ten copies of their DNA (humans carry two). Having more DNA means they can churn out more of the proteins that repair cells damaged by radiation. 

What is the Meaning of This?

This finding suggests that life could transport between planets on a meteor or other space debris. Some speculate that it hints at the origin of life on Earth. Others speculate it could mean life transferred from Mars to Earth or other planets. 

Astrobiologists and microbiologist identified the parts of the bacteria’s genes that create the radiation-repairing proteins. Other scientists have identified various parts of human DNA that change due to living in space (in part due to astronaut Scott Kelly’s year in space). 

The scientists don’t have all the answers yet. But they may have found the key to surviving space radiation making long-term space flights safer. Will it mean they trigger human genes to produce those radiation-damage repairing proteins? Or will they manipulate human genes to be more like the extremophiles and create a being suited for space travel similar to what happens in Man Plus by Frederik Pohl

Imagine you’re an astronaut and going to Mars is all you ever wanted to do. Would you allow scientists to turn you into an extremophile?

Image Credits

Top image NASA/Roscosmos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Last Image: by James Wheeler from Pixabay

Will Your Child Fall in Love with a Cyborg?

Imagine it’s 2050, the pandemic is long over. Cyborgs (beings with both organic and biomechatronic body parts) walk the streets of your town. Will your child fall in love with a cyborg? The beau has a brain-computer-interface (BCI). Maybe he or she has an artificial limb or two. Cyborgs common enough your child or grandchild could befriend or fall in love with one? Seriously? That’s what some forward-looking companies think might happen. But before we consider the future, let’s look at the development of BCI.

Discovery of Brain Waves

EEG, brain waves, an essential discovery on the way to creating a cyborg

Brain-computer-interfaces, also known as brain-machine-interfaces (BMI), begins their story in 1875. Richard Canton discovered electrical signals in animal brains. His discovery inspired Hans Berger to discover the human electroencephalogram (EEG) on July 6, 1924. The EEG measures brainwaves. Today it is invaluable. Its used to diagnose and treat neurological diseases (seizures, brain tumors, etc.)

Computers and Imagination

Illustration of a computer screen showing a brain--an idea waiting to become a cyborg

Konrad Zuse, a German, created the first programmable computer between 1936-1938.

It was also in the 1930s when science fiction authors such as John C. Campbell (John Scott Campbell) and Edmond Hamilton wrote and published stories about transferring memories and personalities into computers.

Tommy Flowers developed and demonstrated the first electric programmable computer, Colossus. In 1943.

IBM introduced its first scientific computer, the 701, in 1953.

By the 1950s, there were many science fiction stories about uploading and restoring brains via computers.

Development: Using Brain Waves

In 1963, an Oxford scientist claimed he’d figured out how to use human brain waves to control a simple slide projector.

By the 1980s, neuroscientists had figured out that if you use an implant to record signals from groups of cells in, say, the motor cortex of a monkey, and then you average all their firings together, you can figure out where the monkey means to move its limb—a finding many regarded as the first major step toward developing brain-controlled prostheses for human patients. Wired.com

But the bare wires and the jelly-like substance of the brain made for a notoriously unstable combination. Eventually it wouldn’t work at all.
In 1996, the FDA approved the implantation of Phil Kennedy’s “cone electrodes” in a human patient. Over time, that first patient controlled a computer cursor with his brain.

The Limitations

Connectors to the implants, electronics, and system engineering are some current limitations of these BCIs. An electrode lifespan of a five-year maximum is another limitation. And brain surgery every five years increases one’s risk of complications, means more recovery time, and more costs.

More and More Research

The Utah Array is a patented microelectrode array technology. Surgeons can implant it into human brains, spinal cords, or peripheral nerves. It has up to 256 electrodes and has been FDA-cleared for temporary neural recording since the 1990s. These folks aren’t a cyborg yet, they’re research subjects. Right?

Several research groups have implanted Utah Arrays in people that lasted multiple years.

In 2017 Elon Musk founded Neuralink. Their website states they are developing “the first neural implant that will let you control a computer or mobile device anywhere you go.”

By 2019, Neuralink’s interdisciplinary team announced that they had “created a 3,000-electrode neural interface where electrodes could be implanted at a rate of between 30 and 200 per minute. Each thread of electrodes is implanted by a sophisticated surgical robot that essentially acts like a sewing machine. This all happens while specifically avoiding blood vessels that blanket the surface of the brain.”

We don’t know yet what 3000 electrodes in your brain will help you do. But with that many electrodes, could a quadriplegic walk? Would the person with that implant be a cyborg

In 2019, Johns Hopkins researchers reported that they implanted electrodes in the brain of a “mostly” paralyzed person. The electrodes enabled him to have “mind control” of motorized prosthetic arms.

Is a Cyborg Coming to Your Future?

A cyborg's robotic hand points its index finger toward a human hand  pointing its index finger at the cyborg's hand

From the Six Million Dollar Man to The Matrix, from Man Plus to Cyberpunk, writers have imagined a connection between man and machine. And from EEGs to brain implants, advances in biotechnology are marching forward. Will it change our humanity as I posited in November 2019? Some predict that the technology will be in common use by 2050. What if your child falls in love with a cyborg? Or your grandchild. Do you think most people will accept cyborgs or will cyborg be uncool and social outcasts?

Type 1 Diabetes Research-What You Need to Know

Recently researchers at LJI reported they prevented beta cell deaths in mice by blocking nerve signals to the pancreas. Why is this important? They may be one step closer to understanding what causes diabetes. The hope is that understanding will lead to a cure. This is what you need to know.

What is the Pancreas?

Your pancreas is about six inches long. It lies in the back of the abdomen, on your right side behind your liver. The pancreas creates a cocktail of juices called enzymes.  These enzymes travel from the pancreas through a duct to the upper part of your intestine. There they break down the food you eat into fats, proteins, and starches.

Your pancreas also produces hormones that carry messages to other parts of your body. (Read more about the pancreas.)

One hormone the healthy pancreas makes is insulin. It makes insulin in specialized cells called beta cells.

What is Type I Diabetes

Image of symbols of syringe with need, pills, diabetic supplies, and medical symbols-type 1 diabetes-what you need to know
Allanakhan123 / CC BY-SA

Nearly 1.6 million Americans have a life-threatening, but treatable condition. Their beta cells die. When their beta cells die, their bodies do not produce insulin. It happens in every race, gender, and body size and shape. Even mammals can have type I diabetes.

Without insulin, you will fall ill within hours. If the high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) isn’t treated you will die. Death comes in days or may take as long as two weeks, depending on your general health and blood sugar levels. (Read more about diabetic ketoacidosis.)

There is no cure for diabetes. People who have type I diabetes must take insulin. Patients manage the disease with medication, a healthy lifestyle and diet and careful monitoring of the blood sugars. Type 1 diabetics can and do live long and happy lives. (Read more about how to manage diabetes.)

How do You Get Diabetes?

We know the beta cells of the pancreas produce insulin for the body. And we know insulin is essential for our body to turn the food we eat into energy for the cells of our body.

In type 1 Diabetics, the cells of the pancreas that make insulin die off. This dying off can be a long process that takes years before the person knows it’s a problem. It can appear at any age from newborn to a senior of advanced age.

While risk factors for type 1 diabetes include genetic and environmental factors, researchers don’t know why the disease seems to attack at random. Some scientists believe an autoimmune response may be what’s killing those cells. Autoimmune response is where the cells meant to fight off infection attack other cells in your body. In this case, your beta cells. (Read more about the possible causes of type 1 diabetes.)

The Research

image of white mouse in gloved hands--type 1 diabetes-what you need to know

Researchers at the LaJolla Institute for Immunology (LJI) are working to uncover the cause of type 1 diabetes. They’ve noticed that the beta cells in a diabetic’s pancreas die off in patches. Some areas have large patches that die and other areas are untouched.

There are many theories about why this occurs. Inadequate blood supply, an attack by a virus, and an autoimmune response are some theories.

They turned to a new field called neuroimmunology, which is the idea that nerve signals can affect immune cells. Could nerve cells drive immune cells to attack the pancreas?

They induced beta cell death in mice. Some mice weren’t untreated, some received beta blockers, and some were “denervated.” 

Denervation is a chemical or physical block that prevents nerve messages to pass. The block can be temporary (often used today in surgeries) or permanent. Here, they surgically cut the nerve or inject it with a neurotoxin or a medication that blocks nerve signals. Then they “used LJI’s world-class imaging facility to track the pattern of beta cell death in living mice.”

The “denervated” mice did not experience beta cell death. “It was like the pancreas had gone dark and  immune cells were unable to find their targets.”

They’ve Just Started

They need to do a lot more testing and research to confirm that this works.

But these results suggest that other autoimmune diseases may benefit from denervation. Arthritis, vitiligo, and lupus erythematosus are a few of the many autoimmune diseases. (Read more about autoimmune disease. )

Before this method can be used on humans, doctors first need a reliable way to predict who was at risk of developing type 1 diabetes. 

And, I’m guessing, there will need to be more research about the effects of denervation on other functions of the pancreas.

Science Provides Slow Hope

What you need to know is that it will take years to explore this treatment and its consequences. Perhaps it will also take years before people accept it as a preventative. You may remember that my niece has type 1 diabetes. Would I recommend she be an early adopter? My answer would depend on information they discover between now and then. If you knew positively that you or your child would develop type 1 diabetes, would you ask for permanent denervation?

How Long Do You Want to Live?

If you could choose, how long do you want to live? To 100, 200, 500 years of age? Perhaps your answer is, it depends—will I be healthy?

Photo of a wrinkled old woman smiling at the question how long would you want to live.

By the end of this decade, nearly 1 in 5 Americans will be 65 or older. Three out of 4 will have two or more serious health conditions. At least 1 in 4 can expect memory lapses and fuzzy thinking, while 1 in 10 will develop dementia.

You’re not part of the generation known as the Boomers? Don’t worry. You’ll age, too. 

Aging-Factors that Cause Disease

The research is extensive. And unfortunately, there isn’t just one thing that leads to age-related diseases. There are many: inflammation; a metabolism system that doesn’t work right; inactive stem cells; stress-related damage, environmental toxins, and more. These problems of aging cells lead to diseases like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoarthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, and cancer.

Fortunately, there’s been a “perfect storm” in anti-aging research. All kinds of treatments for age-related illnesses are moving into or already in clinical trials. They aim to make us grow old in better health. If you could grow old in good health, how long do you want to live?

Anti-Aging Research

A new class of anti-aging drugs called senolytics may give future you the opportunity to choose.

Senolytics remove certain cells that accumulate as we age. The cells create a low level of inflammation that blocks normal mechanisms of cellular repair. These cells, called senescent cells, create a toxic neighborhood for your cells. 

Halting Osteoarthritis

Image of the bones of the knee with inflammation at the knee joint

The goal of Unity Biotechnology, a biotechnology company in California, is to “halt, slow or reverse age-associated diseases, while restoring human health.” Their lead product is a treatment for osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee. It passed the Phase I clinical trial in patients with moderate-to-severe OA of the knee in June 2019. The patients in the clinical trial tolerated the single injection well and showed improvement in pain and in function of the knee. They will publish the results of the Phase II clinical trial within the next six months.

Age-Related Respiratory Illnesses

Winter colds, flu, pneumonia and other respiratory tract infections that send over 1 million older adults to the hospital every year and kill more than 75,000. And that was before Covid.

In studies of more than 900 people by a Boston-based biotech company, their drug reduced the risk for age-related cases of respiratory diseases. Statistically clinical trial patients had 31 percent fewer respiratory infections — (colds, flu, bronchitis and pneumonia). Those with asthma had 68 percent fewer infections. People 85 and older had 67 percent fewer infections. There were fewer severe infections, too.

This drug works differently. It inhibiting an enzyme that regulates growth and metabolism in cells but goes into hyper-drive during the aging process.

A Phase 3 study of this drug started in 2019. If its results are as positive, the FDA could approve the drug for use as early as in 2021.

Other Age-Related Research

would you take these capsules every day if you could then decide how long you would

There are tons of research being done in age-related illnesses. Dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s Disease, is one of them with some promising results.

A drug commonly used in other countries to control diabetes in human patients also has shown promising anti-aging effects.

And there are many more drugs with the promise of having anti-aging effect.

They need more research and testing to be certain, but treatments for things we thought inevitable may be just around the corner. 

How Long Do You Want to Live?

If age-related diseases weren’t an issue, how long do you want to live? Even if these drugs don’t extend your life for another hundred years, you could live to be a healthy 85 or 100. How would that change society? Would we still retire at 65? What would happen to Social Security? How much retirement money would we need to live another 35 or 40 healthy years? So many questions that need answers. Health at 85 sounds pretty good. How long do you want to live? Would you take a pill or two if it guaranteed you’d be healthy at 85?

Organ Farms In Space

Space. The Final Frontier. Not a human friendly environment. Star Trek voyagers didn’t have to worry about injuries in space. They had a miraculous medical lab. We may not have that medical lab yet, but we’re getting there. The experiments may be small today, but someday we may have organ farms in space.

International Space Station is growing human organ tissue in space, someday we may have organ farms in space

Yes, we’ve learned a lot about humans living in space during the past fifty-nine years. Unfortunately, one thing we’ve learned is that space changes a person physiologically. Some of those changes are reversible. Some are not. But imagine if we could replace space-damaged organs. Organ farms in space may make human spaceflight a la Star Trek and Star Wars possible. But more than that, organs grown in space may help relieve multiple complications about organ transplants here on earth.

The Downside to Organ Transplants

Today, when a person needs a new kidney or liver or lung, they must get on a waiting list. The list of people needing organs (no matter which organ they need) is much longer than the list of donors. Years longer.

But being on the list doesn’t mean you’ll get an organ. Organs must be a good match to the recipient’s blood type, height, weight, and other medical factors. Distance between donor and recipient and size of the organ are also factors. (If you’re interested in more details on how the process for matching organ donor to recipient, visit the United Network for Organ Sharing.)

After healing from the surgery, the recipient’s body often sees the transplanted organ as a foreign tissue and tries to reject it. To prevent that, most organ recipients must be on anti-rejection drugs. These drugs have many unpleasant side effects. Some people are on those drugs for years.

Lab-generated Organs

Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine makes replacement parts out of the patient’s own tissues. Most of what they do is experimental, but they have successfully implanted lab-grown urinary bladders.

The first lab-grown organ was a human bladder more than ten years ago.

To create a bladder, they take a small piece of a patient’s bladder and separate muscle and urothelial cells. They put those two types of cells in lab dishes in a fluid that stimulates their growth. In about six weeks, they have enough cells for a bladder. Then they pour the muscle cells onto a collagen scaffold. Two days later, they coat the inside of the scaffold with the urothelial cells. After some time in an incubator, you have a new bladder.

It’s not an easy or quick process. And a bladder is a very simple organ. There are many organs we simply cannot grow in a lab. A heart or a kidney or a lung are much more complex.

3D Printed Organs

I mentioned 3D printed organs in my blog post about future medical treatments. Only we may not have to wait so long.

NASA is 3D Printing Human Organs Aboard the International Space Station. Rather, they’re printing organ tissue. Watch the video.

Someday they hope to grow the more complex organs such as hearts and lungs.

Advantages of 3D Printed Organs

There are many advantages to using 3D printed organs rather than donor organs. You can create an organ exactly the right size, you don’t have to be on a years-long waiting list (once it’s a viable process), and most of all, they can use your own stem cells. Your body will recognize any tissue made with your stem cells. No more fear of rejection!

black man at laptop printing something on a 3D printer--will we 3d print organs--will organ farms in space make us immortal?

But the reason we want to grow organs in space isn’t so we can create the science fiction trope, an organ farm in space. It’s because in microgravity, the cells can grow in 3 dimensions. Someday, we may print the more complex organs. Think of it no more donor organ rejection.

And if astronauts on a long-duration space voyage were to get sick and need an organ transplant, they could get replacement printed up in no time.

What the Future Holds

What if some day there is an organ farm in space? Would they make those organs available to all who need them? Or would those organs be so expensive only the very rich could afford them? Will replacement organs extend human life longer than the “average” lifespan? If it does, will those organ recipients be immortal? How many organ replacements should one person be allowed? What the future holds is unknowable, but perhaps we should give some thought to the consequences of an organ farm in space.