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Jan. 18, 2019

Keeping astronauts healthy during deep space missions

When you get sick, a doctor or hospital is typically right down the road, a couple hours away at most. But what if the nearest one was 34 million miles and eight months away?

George Mias, Michigan State University biochemistry and molecular biology researcher, believes precision medicine – a personalized approach using technology to analyze an individual’s wellness to predict and possibly prevent illnesses – can solve this problem and keep astronauts healthy during deep space missions.

Mias is one of only 15 researchers to receive a two-year award from the Translational Research Institute for Space Health in partnership with NASA. Mias’ team will look at molecular signatures – thousands of body signals ranging from genes, proteins, heart rate, saliva, blood pressure and more – to detect illnesses before they happen. After establishing a person’s wellness baseline, the signals would be monitored to detect early patterns of deviation. 

“Our goal is keeping people healthy as they travel through space by predicting changes that could tell us if there’s something wrong before any outward signs appear,” said Mias, chief of the systems biology division at MSU’s Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering. “If we can detect illnesses early, we can better provide treatment before they leave or while they are in space."

Using data provided by NASA from previous astronaut missions, Mias will build an algorithm that will automate the detection of deviations due to adverse events.

“We’re not looking at a single snapshot but rather a period of time to track a person’s health,” Mias said. “Think of it as an ocean. Normal fluctuations are the waves. We’re trying to detect larger ones triggered by an underlying cause, like a tsunami triggered by an earthquake. Our algorithm will detect both subtle and big deviations so they can be treated in advance.”

The scientists will monitor an individual’s deviations as well as group irregularities to look for specific signatures of forthcoming illnesses. Thousands of signals are used to differentiate ailments, with specific signatures associated with distinctive changes. Studying similar time points of multiple astronauts will help determine whether the same deviations result in the same illnesses.

“As the boundaries of science continue to be pushed, so do the boundaries of human health,” Mias said. “I’ve always loved space and am excited and honored to contribute my expertise toward space exploration by keeping our future astronauts healthy on their travels.”

Collaborating on this interdisciplinary project is Carlo Piermarocchi, MSU physics professor. He will build multi-dimensional networks to represent how connected the different signal measurements are over time. They will enable the understanding of how multiple body signals are interconnected in each individual, as well as the comparison of adverse events across astronauts.

Click here to learn more about the other 14 deep space biomedical projects.

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