The element of surprise: Early findings raise more questions in space radiation research

“The discovery which comes as a puzzle and surprise usually marks a fresh epoch and opens a new chapter in science.” Sir Oliver Joseph Lodge (1851-1940)

The British physicist who pioneered the first clinical use of X-rays in England could have been speaking across the centuries to fellow radiation researchers Dr. Susan Bailey and graduate student Miles McKenna, who are studying the health effects of space flight as part of NASA’s Twins Study.

Using blood samples from astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly, the team is comparing the effects of Scott’s year in space to his brother Mark’s year on Earth. CSU alumnus Kjell Lindgren, who spent six months aboard the International Space Station with Kelly in 2015, was part of a similar study.

Bailey and her team, including Lynn Taylor at CSU and Kerry George at Wyle Laboratories in Houston, had theorized that the unique stresses of space flight – nutritional, psychological and physical, including radiation exposure – would accelerate signs of aging in astronauts’ cells. Specifically, Bailey thought Scott’s telomeres, the protective “caps” on the ends of chromosomes, would shorten as compared to Mark’s.

As they attempt to solve the space-travel puzzle, these CSU researchers, along with other investigators involved in the Twins Study, have just begun to piece together their findings. The space agency’s Human Research Program released its first, preliminary findings at the annual Investigators’ Workshop in Galveston, Texas, the week of Jan. 23, one more step in humankind’s journey to Mars.

This is where things get surprising.

Instead of shrinking, Scott’s telomeres grew longer in-flight.

“It was exactly the opposite of what we thought, but that’s what science is all about, right?” said Bailey, with the rueful smile of a seasoned scientist.

“We were wrong, that was the first reaction. We now need to correlate our findings with some of the results from other investigations to give us confidence that what we are seeing is real,” she said.  Even at this early stage, a whole new set of questions is emerging.

Questions: the beauty of science

“The beauty of science is that even if the result turns out to be not what you were anticipating, you always find different questions,” said McKenna, who will graduate with a doctorate in cell and molecular biology this summer. He was responsible for processing the precious astronaut blood samples, delivered fresh from the space station by Soyuz rocket and overnight couriers, viable for the delicate lab tests.

“As we got into the nitty gritty of the assays, the questions occurred to us quite early, but we couldn’t say anything until we could corroborate what we were seeing,” McKenna said.

Plus, the Kelly twins had the final say on what personal information would be released publicly. They gave the OK just in time for the investigators’ meeting in Galveston.

“We have a lot of ideas about how this telomere-shortening happens, and we will work with other investigators to figure out why,” McKenna said. “The Twins Study is setting a precedent for future studies conducted by NASA.”

Or, as Sir Oliver Joseph Lodge put it more than 100 years ago, these researchers are marking a fresh epoch and opening a new chapter in science.

Pioneers on the space frontier

The Twins Study comprises 10 teams of investigators looking into the physiological, behavioral, microbiological and molecular impacts of space travel on humans. Collaborators include Bailey at CSU, 11 other universities, NASA biomedical laboratories and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. They plan to issue a joint paper later this year to present an overall picture of their results so far.

“The real power comes from all the different investigations. That’s where we’re going to get any kind of mechanistic insight – how did this happen, why did that happen? Then, we can start to address those questions,” she said.

For now, they can theorize about what caused Kelly’s telomere lengthening inflight, and their subsequent return to normal once he returned to Earth. “Radiation would have to be at the top of my list,” Bailey said. “You might say, ‘Oh this is a great thing, his telomeres are longer, maybe he’ll live longer.’ And yet, like most things, there’s an opposite side of that coin. The opposite side is that’s exactly what cancers do. They turn on telomerase and they maintain their telomere length.”

Other possibilities include changes in metabolic rate due to the regimented space diet and intense exercise on-station. Scott Kelly lost 15 pounds in his year on the station.

“One big aspect is that nutrition and exercise can positively affect your telomere length, which can be a great predictor of aging,” McKenna said.  There is also support for the view that positive attitudes and mindfulness – perhaps as in living out a lifetime dream or goal – can influence telomeres for the better.

Bailey says results from her investigations should improve understanding of how life stresses can shape telomere maintenance, which, in turn, is related to aging and age-related diseases. These insights could lead to ways of mitigating reduced immune function, cardiovascular disease, and cancer in space and on Earth.

“Our goal is to inform NASA of the health effects of space flight as we spend longer periods of time and go deeper into space. This is just low-Earth orbit. For Mars, they’re going to be gone three years and they will be well outside Earth’s protection. They’re going to be exposed to a lot more radiation, for a much longer period of time. This gives us a first glimpse into what we should be aware of,” Bailey said.

So, would Bailey, a fan of the innovative National Geographic docudrama, “Mars,” take the trip?

“The cold, those dust storms, not having any sun for months, I just could not do that,” she said. “In the words of Scott Kelly, ‘Space is hard.’”

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.