• By Kevin Punsky

Expert Alert: Mayo Clinic aerospace medicine experts look ahead 50 years after Apollo 11

May 13, 2019
SpaceX CRS-10 mission blast off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center with Dr. Zubair's stem cell research

As the world prepares to remember and celebrate the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's "one giant leap for mankind" 50 years ago this summer, Mayo Clinic researchers are looking ahead to the next giant leaps.

Mayo Clinic has made important contributions to space medicine and research since the dawn of the U.S. space program in the 1950s, and prior to that with aeronautical research during the World War II era. Mayo Clinic is now positioned to play a major role in space medicine advances as the U.S. prepares for a possible return to the moon a half-century after Apollo 11 astronauts took their first steps on the moon in 1969.

"Historically, Mayo Clinic has been closely involved in aerospace medicine," says Jan Stepanek, M.D., director of Aerospace Medicine at Mayo Clinic's Arizona campus. "Former Mayo staff members set up the first testing of the seminal astronaut corps, and Mayo researchers did a lot of work for the moon and space shuttle missions. … Our involvement goes back to the beginning of the U.S. space program and continues to the present day."

The growth of commercial spaceflight has opened the door to new research and opportunities for space medicine. Dr. Stepanek is the primary author of a recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine that says space medicine will have to adapt to a time when commercial spaceflight companies play a larger role.

"Civilian spaceflight is a new frontier. And as a frontier, there is a paradigm shift from highly trained, exceptionally fit astronauts to the broader public," Dr. Stepanek says. "There are a lot of unknowns and reasons to be cautious."

The advent of civilian travel in space, along with fast-growing commercial ventures and talk of NASA resuming manned missions to the moon within the next decade, will open up new avenues for medical research and discovery, Dr. Stepanek says. And, he says, it's vital that space exploration go full speed ahead.

"It brings incredible dividends to humanity, for the benefit of everyone here on Earth," he says. "A lot of things that we all take for granted and that have made our lives better have their roots in what was learned and developed for the space program."

Alejandro Rabinstein, M.D., medical director of Mayo Clinic's Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit, is among Mayo researchers working with NASA to learn more about the effects of extended space travel such as a long trip to Mars, on the human body. Dr. Rabinstein has been investigating the feasibility of putting astronauts into a hypothermic torpor for extended space travel, which could limit metabolic demands on the body and make the trip more psychologically tolerable.

Among other Mayo aerospace research underway is a stem cell study that has been aboard the International Space Station since December 2018. Abba Zubair, M.D., Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic specialist in transfusion medicine and regenerative medicine, says that Mayo Clinic and NASA hope to learn more about the long-term effects of cosmic radiation on humans in space. The study will remain in orbit for about a year.

Dr. Zubair led a previous stem cell study that was aboard the Space Station for a month in 2017. That experiment investigated the genetic effects of extended time in space and the findings will report on chromosomal changes and the impact on DNA.

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