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Dr. Hans Schwertz always dreamt of the stars. As a kid back home in Germany, he found himself gazing at the sky after reading a book about space. One of his prized possessions growing up was a print of the picture Earthrise snapped by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders.
“I always told my kids I would love to stand on the moon and see the earth rise,” Schwertz, an adjunct professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of Utah Health who practices medicine in Montana said. “That would be so cool.”
Schwertz realized he’d probably never fly to the moon, so he searched for a different way to get a taste of space. As an occupational doctor, he started researching the impacts space travel has on astronauts.
Schwertz and Dr. Matthew Rondina, a professor of internal medicine and pathology at the U., pitched a grant proposal to NASA that would examine how astronauts physically adapt and acclimate to space by looking at bone marrow cells and blood platelets during space travel. Such cells help protect against infectious disease and inflammation and can weaken outside of Earth’s environment.
NASA passed on their proposal twice, but their third attempt ended in success. Schwertz and Rondina were awarded one of ten biology grants offered by NASA in 2021, U. Health announced Wednesday.
“I was in actual tears, as cheesy as that sounds,” Schwartz said when he found out NASA accepted their proposal. “I guess the third time was the lucky charm.”
Importance of space research
It’s been nearly 60 years since America began space exploration. Research indicates astronauts experience a stressful environment in space and are exposed to cosmic radiation, confinement, lower gravitational pulls, different kinds of bacteria, lowered immunity and a loss of muscle and bone mass. These conditions have been linked to an increased risk of hemorrhages, blood clots and slower recovery times.
Schwertz says as NASA plans to explore Mars or establish a space station on the moon, the U. Health’s research could prove invaluable, especially since the long-term effects of space travel on astronauts remain largely unknown.
“We are talking about long time spans [in space] and about areas that are not protected by the Earth’s magnetic field,” he noted. “So cosmic radiation and stuff like that will be much more pronounced and that needs to be explored, and there needs to be research on what risks we put on those astronauts.”
Through a voluntary process, blood samples of astronauts will be drawn before they go to space, during space travel, and examined in real-time, then researchers will compare the two culture samples. Once the astronauts return to Earth, another blood sample will be taken. The team of five will also simulate cosmic radiation in a lab to see how the cells react to exposure.
Additionally, Rondina highlights this research could advance medicine on Earth by broadening the understanding of how bone marrow cells and platelets contribute to inflammation, immunity and wound healing.
“This knowledge could potentially lead to new treatments for a host of autoimmune diseases and other disorders,” Rondina said in the U. Health statement.
If everything goes as planned, Schwertz and Rondina’s research could board the International Space Station and blast off into space within the next year.
“I cannot tell you how much I will enjoy that moment when I stand at the Kennedy Space Center with my family, kids in hand and watch the experiment really fly,” Schwertz said proudly. “It’s going to be so rewarding to show them this is possible.”