INSIDE BINGHAMTON UNIVERSITY
Bed-rest study into female immune system responses
It’s clear from existing data that space flight conditions alter immune responses,” said Sonnenfeld, who serves as a researcher on NSBRI’s Immunology, Infection and Hematology Team.
With current expeditions to the International Space Station for extended periods and future exploration missions to the moon and Mars, astronauts will be exposed to chronic radiation. Compromised immune systems could result from such radiation exposure and the effects of microgravity and changes in immunity could have serious effects on an astronaut’s ability to resist infection and on the development of tumors.
To help unravel the infection-resistance issue, Sonnenfeld is researching the overall impact of the body’s immune response under space-like conditions. “Space has such limited access. To research the immune response, we use a bed-rest model because it provides conditions similar to space conditions – fluid shift to the head and a lack of weight-bearing on the lower limbs,” he said.
Through tests taken before, during and after bed rest, Sonnenfeld will gauge whether participants’ white blood cells divide normally and whether messengers of the immune system, called cytokines, are produced. Sonnenfeld also will study the frequency by which latent viruses are reactivated and whether participants mount an immune response to a harmless vaccine — phiX74 — that is introduced during the study.
“In the past, most bed-rest studies for immunity have been carried out on men. It’s significant to be part of the international WISE study because scientists and the space community want valid conclusions about effects on women,” said Sonnenfeld.
The study involves 24 healthy, non-smoking female volunteers between the ages of 25 and 40. Candidates in the first phase came from the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, The Netherlands and Poland. Recruitment for another 12 volunteers needed for the second campaign is ongoing.
Each subject is assigned to one of three groups: bed rest, bed rest with a series of exercises targeting the lower body or bed rest with a nutritional supplement. For 60 days, participants lie with their heads tilted six degrees below horizontal so that their feet are slightly higher than their heads.
Researchers begin by collecting physiological data to serve as a baseline. Blood samples, urine samples and saliva swabs are taken at specified intervals during the study. After the bed-rest period ends, similar tests are taken for comparison. Participants will be monitored for how their bodies recovered for up to three years.
“The data garnered by this study is not only historic, it will be valuable in international efforts to plan long-duration missions,” Sonnenfeld said. “It could help determine how exercise and nutritional countermeasures for other space flight-induced problems including bone and muscle loss influence the immune system, making researchers better able to coordinate solutions to the challenges of human space flight.”
Sonnenfeld’s team includes Janet Butel of Baylor College of Medicine, William Shearer of Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine, David Niesel of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and Michel Abbal and Antoine Blancher of the Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse.
Interview of Gerald Sonnenfeld.