Space has long been recognized as the ultimate frontier for human exploration, and it may also hold the key to the future of human medicine. Dorit Donoviel, Executive Director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH), is at the forefront of this exploration. In collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine, Caltech, and MIT, TRISH partners with NASA to tackle the health challenges posed by deep space exploration. From microgravity studies to drug production in space, TRISH is breaking new ground.

TRISH funds a diverse range of experiments, addressing crucial aspects of space health. These include research on balance in microgravity, enabling astronauts to manufacture drugs in space, and even projects evaluating mental resilience in extreme environments like Antarctica. Recently, TRISH collected valuable data during the Axiom Mission 3, marking a significant milestone in commercial astronaut expeditions to the International Space Station.

Donoviel, also an associate professor at Baylor and a seasoned space researcher, shares her insights into the challenges, risks, and groundbreaking innovations shaping the future of deep space medicine.

Donoviel emphasizes that living in space, specifically within the protection of Earth’s atmosphere, has been a constant since the construction of the International Space Station in 1998. However, venturing into deep space, beyond Earth’s protective shield, presents new health challenges. Space radiation emerges as a major risk, affecting the entire body and posing potential threats to organ systems.

Mental health is another significant concern. The confined space, lack of direct communication with loved ones, and the absence of Earth’s view can contribute to stress and isolation. Addressing these challenges involves developing strategies for on-the-spot healthcare provision and ensuring food stability, crucial for long-duration space missions.

TRISH is approaching the challenge of space nutrition through engineered biology. Donoviel explains the use of genetically engineered microorganisms, such as bacteria, yeast, and fungi, to produce essential nutrients and medications. This includes the concept of just-in-time medications, where astronauts can generate pharmaceuticals on-site, reducing the need for carrying extensive medication supplies.

TRISH’s approach to mental health involves proactive diagnosis, prevention, and mitigation. To simulate the challenges of space missions, the institute has partnered with the Australian Antarctic Division, conducting experiments in extremely isolated and hazardous conditions. The focus is on understanding how individuals cope with extended periods of boredom and limited variety, akin to the challenges faced during spaceflight.

Donoviel unveils preliminary data indicating the possibility of reducing human metabolism by 20-30% using medications. This opens the door to exploring human hibernation as a strategy for deep space travel. The envisioned scenario involves extended periods of sleep, interspersed with waking moments for essential activities, providing a coping mechanism for the monotony and challenges of space journeys.

TRISH’s involvement in Axiom Mission 3 includes comprehensive health data collection, analyzing blood, urine, saliva, stool, and skin swabs for microbiomes. The institute is also studying neurovestibular changes to address balance concerns, particularly relevant for future moon missions.

Donoviel expresses excitement about the upcoming Artemis III mission, scheduled to return astronauts to the moon’s surface in 2026. While acknowledging the familiarity of lunar missions, she underscores the importance of learning to live off-planet with no immediate return option. Innovations arising from these challenges may not only ensure the health of astronauts but also yield medical breakthroughs applicable on Earth, particularly in cancer prevention.

As humanity prepares to explore new realms beyond Earth, TRISH’s pioneering initiatives promise to redefine space health and contribute to transformative advancements in medical science. The quest for innovation in space medicine becomes a catalyst for addressing health challenges both in space and on our home planet.

By Impact Lab