As humanity slowly gears up for an eventual space flight to Mars, one of the toughest questions we're still trying to answer is how to conquer space without space killing us first.
Space travel is notoriously hard on the human body. For decades, astronauts have returned to Earth anemic, their red blood cell count depleted, leaving them vulnerable to infection. A team of scientists led by Dr. Guy Trudel, a rehabilitation physician at the University of Ottawa, is investigating how to prevent anemia from occurring by investigating the effects of microgravity on bone marrow.
Bone marrow produces red blood cells and affects how well they function in the body. On Earth, when somebody is bedridden, wheelchair-bound, or otherwise unable to move for an extended period of time, their bone marrow grows fattier, which Trudel says contributes to anemia. In space, the effect is perhaps the same, since less force is put on the limbs, but this has never been studied before.
"If that fat change in the bone marrow keeps going, then you may be in trouble should an emergency occur," Trudel told me over the phone, "If you bleed, you will need to produce many blood cells right away. If you get an infection, and you may be bone marrow deficient, ... that can have serious consequences."
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In a previous study, published in 2012, a team led by Trudel found that after 60 days of bed rest, the marrow of the patients studied looked as if it had aged and grown by four years, Trudel said. In follow-up measurements, Trudel explained, nothing had changed. "So whatever happened was irreversible in that study," Trudel told me.
Trudel's team is sending medical instruments up to the International Space Station on the next resupply rocket, set to launch on December 3. These will be used by an anonymous astronaut to take four blood tests on the station over a period of six months. The astronaut, who is not yet on the ISS, will also undergo MRI scans before and after they return. After all these tests, Trudel says they hope to use the results to find a way to mitigate the effects of outer space on bone marrow.
"There may need to be a change in the exercise program the astronauts are going through," Trudel said. "Maybe some of the exercise routine they're doing is efficient to prevent or mitigate that, and some is not. Then there may be medications also that may be tried to stop the process."
It'll be five or more years before the work shows any results, since each astronaut will be up in space for half a year, and Trudel said the team hopes to repeat the experiment with 10 astronauts in total.
For the foreseeable future, at least, our fragile, fleshy bodies will continue to be one of the many barriers to finally getting to Mars.