A Match Made for the Heavens

How NIH and NASA Have Partnered in Biomedical Research


Will humans one day travel to Mars or other planets? How will we get there, bring our supplies, and make life sustainable? And how will long-duration space flight and life on distant planets affect us physiologically and psychologically? Luckily, NASA and NIH are working jointly, through a memorandum of understanding (MOU), to use the unique environment of the International Space Station (ISS) to answer these questions as well as questions about human health in general.

International Space Station in flight against blue background


The International Space Station

In early June 2017, SpaceX CRS-11 launched from the Kennedy Space Center (Merritt Island, Florida) with 2,000 pounds of scientific payload to the ISS. Some studies were developed by high-school students: For example, one group in Colorado will study algae, which could be used in space to remove crew-generated carbon monoxide and in the process produce fats, hydrogen, and other fuels. Other studies include NIH-funded researchers such as a group from the University of California at Los Angeles who have arranged to test a newly developed drug on rodents to see how well it rebuilds bone and blocks further bone loss. Bone-density loss, or osteoporosis, occurs when people or animals spend a long time in space. Although exercise prevents it from getting worse, nothing is known to restore bone that is already lost. This research, which builds on previous work supported by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases and the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, could lead to ways of treating bone-density loss not only for astronauts but also for people on Earth. 

Astronauts face other health-related issues such as muscle loss, vision impairments, kidney stones, and complications from radiation exposure. NIH and NASA researchers have been addressing these health implications of space travel since the 1960s. Collaborations continue today through an NIH-NASA biomedical initiative led by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB).

“NIH-supported biomedical researchers are thrilled by the opportunity to run experiments in Earth’s orbit that increase our understanding of the health of astronauts and those of us still on Earth,” said NIBIB Director Roderic Pettigrew, who is the NIH liaison for the MOU. “We anticipate that the insights into biology that microgravity and the space environment reveal will have profound outcomes for all of us.”

Intramural researchers, such as Manuel B. Datiles III (National Eye Institute) have also been involved in space-related projects, too. Datiles and scientists at Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore) are trying to understand the vision impairments associated with space travel. They developed a compact fiber-optic probe that uses dynamic light scattering to noninvasively detect the formation of cataracts before they are clinically identifiable. This device would enable physicians to better diagnose eye problems in astronauts before they leave Earth and perhaps reduce the incidence of vision issues while they’re in space. In addition, the device may be valuable for people on Earth: It can alert them early to their risk of developing cataracts so they can make lifestyle changes that might help—such as decreasing sun exposure, quitting smoking, stopping certain medications, and controlling diabetes.

Other NIH scientists are looking at how well the immune system and other physiological systems function in space. Joshua Zimmerberg (Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development), who has a long history of collaborating with NASA, is the director of the NASA-NIH Center for Three-Dimensional Tissue Culture (NIH Clinical Center, Building 10). He and collaborators sent human lymphoid tissue samples to the ISS and tested the immune response of the tissue in space, in simulated microgravity, and on the ground. His work showed that without gravity we lose our immune response to pathogens.

“My calculations couldn’t have predicted that such a weak force like gravity could have had such a profound effect,” said Zimmerberg. An understanding of why immune cells don’t work without gravity can also help non-astronauts who have dysfunctional immune systems.

The success of future journeys to deep space depends on a better understanding of human health—both in space and on Earth.

Kris Kandarpa (NIBIB), the point of contact for the NIH-NASA initiative, in essence provides a matchmaking service for NASA’s health-related questions and researchers who can provide the answers. For more information about opportunities to collaborate with NASA, contact him (kris.kandarpa@nih.gov or 301-496-8859). NIBIB is also in the process of developing a website. In the meantime, to find out more about past collaborations, go to https://www.niams.nih.gov/News_and_Events/NIH_NASA_Activities/.