3-D Printable Tools May Help Study Astronaut Health

If
humans are destined for deep space, they need to understand
the space
environment changes health, including aging and
antibiotic resistance.

A
new NASA project could help. It aims to develop technology
used to study
“omics” — fields of microbiology that are
important to human health.
Omics includes research into
genomes, microbiomes and proteomes.

The
Omics in Space project is being led by NASA’s Jet
Propulsion Laboratory in
Pasadena, California. The project was
recently funded by NASA’s Translational Research Institute
for Space
Health
four years of
study. Over that time,
NASA hopes to develop 3-D printable designs for
instruments on
the International Space Station (ISS), that can handle liquids
like blood samples without spilling in microgravity. These
tools could enable
astronauts to analyze biological samples
without sending them back to Earth.

Learning
how bacteria affect crew health, or how genes affect
aging and disease, can
ensure the safety of long-term missions
to Mars and beyond.

No Overnight Mail in Space

NASA
has already studied omics with efforts like the
Microbial
Tracking 1 experiment
, which examined microbial
diversity on the space station. But there’s
no way to process
samples on the station right now, so they have to be sent
down
to Earth.

It
can be months between the time a sample is taken and an
analysis is done, said
Kasthuri Venkateswaran of JPL,
principal investigator for the Omics in Space
project.

“You
don’t have overnight mail when you go to space,”
Venkateswaran said.
“You have to do all the analysis by
yourself. This project will develop an
automated system for
studying molecular biology with minimal crew
intervention.”

One
of the biggest challenges with preparing samples is
handling fluids in
microgravity. Astronauts collect a variety
of samples, including their own
saliva and blood, as well as
microbes swabbed from the walls of the ISS. These
samples have
to then be mixed with water so they can be injected into
instruments for analysis. Without the proper tools, samples can
spill, float or
form air bubbles that could compromise
results.

A Big Step in 2016

Last
year, NASA took a big step by
sequencing
DNA in space for the first time
. Astronauts
used a tiny, handheld sequencing tool called the MinION,
developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies.

Omics in Space will build
on this success by developing an
automated DNA/RNA extractor which will prepare
samples for
aMinION
device. A critical part of this extractor is a 3-D
printable plastic cartridge
needed to extract nucleic acids
from the samples for the MinION sequencing.

All
of this technology has been tested here on Earth, said
Camilla Urbaniak, a
post-doctoral researcher at JPL and
co-investigator on Omics in Space.

“We’re
taking what’s on Earth to analyze DNA and consolidating
all the steps into an
automated system,” Urbaniak said.
“What’s new is we’re developing a
one-stop-shop that can
extract and process all of these samples.”

The Future of Space Health

Previous
omics research has revealed that astronaut immune
systems tend to be weaker
after living on the ISS. Scientists
aren’t sure why.

The field of epigenetics,
which studies how genes are
expressed — including how humans age — could help
explain
how microgravity and cosmic rays affect our DNA.

But Omics in Space isn’t
just about the human passengers who
travel to the ISS. There are also microbes,
carried by humans
and cargo alike, which accumulate on board
spacecraft.

“We
need to put together a ‘passenger list’ of the microbes
that ride along to
space,” said Nitin Singh of JPL, another
co-investigator on the project.
“Then, astronauts can detect
genetic markers revealing whether these
microbes are helpful
or harmful — the ‘luggage’ these passengers are bringing
with
them.”

Being
able to respond to changes in a crew’s environment is
crucial during long space
voyages, said Ganesh Mohan of JPL, a
co-investigator on the project who will be
working to detect
pathogenic microbes.

“You can see whether a
possibly harmful microbe is increasing
in number in real time. If needed, we
could then take actions
to counteract those microbes,” said Mohan.

The Omics in Space project
is funded by NASA’s Translational
Research Institute for Space Health, which is
jointly operated
with the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. The
institute is overseen by NASA’s Human Research Program.

Caltech in Pasadena, California manages JPL for NASA.

News Media Contact

Andrew Good
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-393-2433
andrew.c.good@jpl.nasa.gov

2018-027

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