NASA has made no secret about their interest in a manned mission to Mars sometime in the 2030s. While that may seem like a long ways away, it really isn’t as Mars is a long ways away. NASA has a clear road map in order to accomplish its goals and guarantee the safety of its astronauts. To that end, NASA is looking at the effects of a long-term space on the body, but for now is using mice bodies to do it.
Mice show signs of liver damage after just two weeks in space (in 2011)
The researchers behind the report that was recently published in the journal PLOS ONE, will certainly raise some eyebrows at NASA and specifically within the program charged with the aforementioned Mars mission. It’s likely that NASA may try to land astronauts on an asteroid well away from where humans have gone before, but well short of the distance to Mars and this study will concern those in charge of those plans as well.
While both NASA and the Russian space agency just sent two astronauts to the International Space Station for nearly a year to study the effects of longer stays in space on the body, they are also getting some help from mice that flew for thirteen days on the space shuttle Atlantis.
“Prior to this study we really didn’t have much information on the impact of spaceflight on the liver,” said lead author Karen Jonscher, an associate professor of anesthesiology and a physicist at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus.
“We knew that astronauts often returned with diabetes-like symptoms but they usually resolved quickly.”
The mice, however, didn’t fare as well. The researchers studying the mice following their stay found that cells were triggered that could ultimately lead to both scarring and irreparable damage to the the organs (especially the liver). The livers in the mice loss the animal equivalent of Vitamin A, retinol, and also stored more fat in the vital organ.
Additionally, the mice struggled with getting rid of these fats compared to their grounded compatriots and showed signs of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease “and potential early indicators for the beginnings of fibrosis, which can be one of the more progressive consequences of NAFLD,” the researchers wrote.
Space doesn’t just mess with your liver
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the human body isn’t necessarily ideally equipped to deal with space. Human evolution didn’t really factor in long-term space flight in its plans for our survival.
Those thirteen days in space had the same effect on the livers of the mice that you would generally need years of eating like an idiot to “achieve.”
“If a mouse is showing nascent signs of fibrosis without a change in diet after 13.5 days, what is happening to the humans?” she asked.
“Whether or not this is a problem is an open question,” Jonscher said.
That last comment is likely why NASA has made no statement regarding the recently published study. NASA has surely look at the findings but may very well wait until they have studied the tissue of mice that have spent months on the ISS.
“We need to look at mice involved in longer duration space flight to see if there are compensatory mechanisms that come into play that might protect them from serious damage,” Jonscher said.