UA Collaborates on NASA Grant Exploring Infectious Microbes and Spaceflight Risk

The UA's Dr. Zain Khalpey will work with other researchers to better understand infectious disease risk to astronauts during spaceflight missions.
Aug. 15, 2013
Dr. Zain Khalpey
Dr. Zain Khalpey

The University of Arizona is part of a team of researchers collaborating on a three-year, $750,000 NASA grant to advance understanding of astronaut crew health and performance during space exploration missions.

The overarching research goal of the multi-institutional, multidisciplinary project is to better understand the infectious disease risks to NASA crews, who are considered to be more susceptible to infections due to a reduced immune function during spaceflight missions. Specifically, the study will investigate how spaceflight affects key characteristics of  pathogens during their interaction with the infected host in the microgravity environment.

Dr. Zain Khalpey, cardiothoracic surgeon and director of clinical and translational research in the UA Department of Surgery, one of the lead investigators, will work on the project with co-lead investigators Cheryl Nickerson and Jennifer Barrila from Arizona State University, as well as researchers from the Cincinnati Children's Hospital and NASA's Johnson Space Center.

The project was one of just 31 "Research Opportunities in Space Biology" proposals selected for NASA funding.

"This is a highly important collaboration," Khalpey said. "As a physician-scientist, I feel that if we're going to do something out of this world – no pun intended – it's going to be through positive, multidisciplinary partnerships like this one."

Microbes can thrive in very extreme environments, and low Earth orbit is no exception. As mankind continues to boldly reach for the stars, with longer missions in space and a possible future journey to Mars, ensuring the safety of the crew is mission critical.

"Wherever people go, germs will follow," said Nickerson, a microbiologist at ASU's Biodesign Institute and professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences.

Since 1998, Nickerson has led research teams flying many experimental payloads with NASA and has been a pioneer in space-based microbial research, receiving NASA's Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 2011.

"It is the goal and passion of my team to use the unique microgravity environment of spaceflight as an innovative research platform to unveil novel cellular and molecular mechanisms directly relevant to disease progression that cannot be observed here on Earth," Nickerson said. "I am excited with the potential of this work to both mitigate the risk of infectious disease to the crew during future exploration missions, as well as for development of novel strategies to diagnose, treat and prevent infectious disease for the general public."

Previous results from a payload Nickerson's team flew onboard space shuttle Atlantis showed for the first time that microbes could be uniquely affected by spaceflight, becoming more infectious pathogens due to the microgravity environment – a possible double whammy for astronaut health risks.

The newly funded study represents one of the most sophisticated, multidisciplinary collaborative NASA biomedical experiments ever attempted.

For the first time, the team will use several powerful new techniques to investigate the infection of sophisticated 3-D cell and tissue models of the human gut with the foodborne pathogen Salmonella to understand changes in the infection process during spaceflight that could impact astronaut health. The experiments are designed in such a way to easily be translated to a spaceflight experiment to confirm any findings.

"Understanding how Salmonella interacts with its host is very easy to do in a Petri dish, but it may have no physiological significance in the real world of spaceflight," Khalpey said. "So we are teaming up to develop a model that will show in 3-D what’s going on with the virulence of organisms in space and in microgravity."

Khalpey's role in the project will be to analyze samples from Nickerson's lab to better understand how cells' energy metabolism is affected in a microgravity environment like that experienced by astronauts in space.

"I'm looking at it from a metabolism point of view, looking at how cells interact in different environments, what drives the cells' signals, what causes them to differentiate, what causes some organisms to be more virulent than others," he said. "If you know about metabolism and how it changes, perhaps you could block Salmonella, or other diseases, from infecting astronauts."

In addition to addressing astronaut health, Khalpey also hopes the NASA project will help with his ongoing research at the UA, focused on reconditioning damaged donor organs or growing new organs from scratch through organogenesis. (You can read more about Dr. Khalpey's work with organ reconditioning and organogenisis in the UANews article, "UA Surgeon Works to Revolutionize Organ Transplantation.")

"I'm hoping to extrapolate and extend what we learn to tissue regeneration in human beings and organ regeneration," he said. "For me, understanding what happens in 3-D will give me clues to improve organ regeneration and tissue regeneration, so that’s where I’m hoping to go with it."

Says Nickerson: "I am confident that spaceflight research platforms, such as the ISS (International Space Station) National Laboratory and commercial spacecraft, will provide exciting, ground-breaking discoveries in a variety of biomedical fields that will advance human health and quality of life for many years to come."