ASU leads $750,000 NASA grant to explore infectious microbes and spaceflight risks

ASU leads $750,000 NASA grant to explore infectious microbes and spaceflight risks

August 15, 2013

August 15, 2013

Arizona State University professor Cheryl Nickerson, Ph.D., and Jennifer Barrila, Ph.D., an Assistant Research Professor in the Nickerson laboratory have been awarded a joint three-year, $750,000 NASA grant to advance our understanding of astronaut crew health and performance during space exploration missions.

Nickerson, a microbiologist at ASU’s Biodesign Institute and professor in the School of Life Sciences, and Barrila also at the Biodesign Institute, will lead a multi-university and institutional experiment that will apply next generation cellular and molecular profiling techniques to enable discovery of mechanisms that underlie critically and clinically important disease processes. 

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

Microbes can thrive in seemingly every extreme environment, and low Earth orbit is no exception. As mankind continues to boldly go and 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, who, since 1998, has led research teams flying many experimental payloads with NASA and been a pioneer in space-based microbial research. In 2011, she was the recipient of NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal— its most prestigious commendation for outstanding contributions to science. 

"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. 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. 

Now, ASU is one of only two universities in the nation to form a Space Act agreement with NASA that will utilize spaceflight as a novel research platform for next-generation biomedical and vaccine development research onboard the International Space Station (ISS), a national lab orbiting 220 miles above the Earth. 

The newly funded study from Nickerson and Barrila represents one of the most sophisticated, multidisciplinary collaborative NASA biomedical experiments ever attempted, and includes ASU Nickerson lab colleague, Shameema Sarker, Ph.D., as well as computational biologist and genome informatics specialist Dr. Bruce Aranow, M.D., Ph.D., of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Zain Khalpey, director of Clinical and Translational Research at the University of Arizona, and long-term collaborator microbiologist C. Mark Ott, Ph.D., and immunologist Clarence Sams, Ph.D., of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

The work proposed in the new grant builds on previous missions to uncover the molecular underpinnings of microbial infections in microgravity environments, taking advantage of the ISS platform’s ability to carry out lengthier experiments than was possible during space shuttle missions.

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. The transition of an experiment to spaceflight is never easy, however, Nickerson and Barrila have extensive experience in successfully converting Earth-based experiments into important spaceflight discoveries.

“By leveraging the multidisciplinary expertise of the exceptional research team assembled for this work, this study holds exciting potential to provide insight at an unparalleled resolution into how physical forces and molecular signals converge to alter the dynamics of the infection process,” said Barrila.

"Our work to date has merely built the foundation from which a tremendous amount of research still needs to be accomplished,” said Nickerson. “I am confident that spaceflight research platforms, such as the ISS 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.  I am excited to see ASU at the forefront of these efforts.”