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Space Travel May Disrupt Human Immune Systems

Astronauts aboard spacecraft frequently encounter immune system issues such as infections and the reactivation of dormant viruses, even during short-term space missions.

This phenomenon is attributed to the lack of gravity, which appears to disrupt the immune system’s functioning during space travel, according to a recent study published on June 11 in the journal Nature Communications.

The study revealed that immune cells exhibit altered growth patterns in weightless conditions, impacting their ability to combat diseases at the single-cell level, as noted by Dr. Daniel Winer, a gerontologist at the University of Southern California’s Buck Institute for Research on Aging.

Moreover, researchers identified a potential remedy for the immune system’s susceptibility to weightlessness — the plant pigment quercetin. Found in foods like red onions, grapes, berries, apples, and citrus fruits, quercetin was observed to reverse around 70% of the immune cell changes induced by microgravity.

To investigate the effects of simulated microgravity, the researchers analyzed immune cells cultured from the blood of 27 healthy human donors aged between 20 and 46. These cells were subjected to 25 hours of simulated microgravity using NASA’s Rotating Wall Vessel, a laboratory device mimicking weightlessness by continuously rotating cell cultures.

The study’s findings, combined with prior research involving humans and mice in space, highlighted various genes and biological pathways influenced by microgravity. Utilizing an AI system, researchers identified quercetin as a potential immunostimulant to mitigate the immune system’s vulnerability in space.

David Furman, chief of AI at the USC Buck Institute for Research on Aging, emphasized the significance of this research in understanding human biology in extreme conditions and its broader implications beyond space exploration. By deciphering the immune system’s response to microgravity, researchers aim to develop strategies to maintain normal immune function in harsh environments, potentially offering insights into age-related immune decline and avenues for therapeutic intervention.

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