May 10, 2016 – NASA’s Human Research Program is conducting a Twins Study on retired twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly. The study began during Scott Kelly’s One-Year Mission, which encompassed International Space Station Expeditions 43, 44, 45 and 46. Now that Scott has returned from space researchers are integrating data as well as taking measurements on Earth from the twins.
This is the first time NASA has conducted Omics research on identical twins. Comparing various types of molecular information on identical individuals while one undergoes unique stresses, follows a defined diet, and resides in microgravity to one who resides on Earth, with gravity, should yield interesting results.
Omics profiles are the first step toward personalizing medicine for astronauts and everyone else on Earth.
The Twins Study is a multi-faceted national cooperation between universities, corporations, and government laboratories. NASA selected ten separate investigations that focus in part on the comparison of blood samples collected from Scott and Mark at regular intervals before, during and after the one-year mission. Physiological and psychological testing are also being conducted on the brothers to isolate any changes that can be attributed to life in space.
The study is helping to create the most detailed molecular map of the changes in the body over time (DNA, RNA proteins, small molecules, cognition, vasculature, epigenetics, epitranscriptome, protein changes), and the process of making and then integrating these data will be used for methods on patients here on Earth too (cancer patients, aging, normal longitudinal monitoring of health).
Colorado State University (CSU) researcher Susan Bailey is among the hand-picked scientists chosen by NASA’s Human Research Program to coordinate and share data and analysis from the investigation as part of an integrated research team. In honor of National DNA Day on April 25, 2016, she joined astronaut CSU alum Kjell Lindgren and the other principal investigators for a HREC Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) online event.
Bailey, professor of environmental and radiological health sciences at CSU, is analyzing minuscule changes in the DNA of Scott Kelly. Bailey is studying the impacts of space radiation on chromosomal telomeres, which are akin to the plastic tips on the end of shoelaces that keep the lace from unraveling. Those tips help protect the body from aging and the cancer-causing effects of radiation by holding our chromosomes together.
As cells divide and replicate during the course of human life, the chromosomes divide as well, and the telomeres gradually erode, eventually leading to the natural death of cells.
“I’m interested in the effects of space flight (experiences, exposures) on aging – and therefore the increased risk of developing the degenerative diseases that go along with it (e.g., cardiovascular disease, cancer),” Bailey said on Reddit.
For the NASA project, Bailey gathered baseline data on the twins’ telomeres and is now examining how the various demands of life in space – like exposure to radiation, limited diet, and physical and psychological stress – affects those caps on Scott’s chromosomes relative to Mark’s.
Lindgren is also participating in the telomere research. In addition to providing samples of his blood before and after his mission, Lindgren drew his own blood in space and sent the samples down to Earth via cargo vehicles that resupply the ISS.
Although the investigations conducted on the Kelly brothers are not expected to provide definitive data about the effects of spaceflight on individuals – because there are only two subjects for data collection – they could help scientists separate the nature vs. nurture effects of spaceflight on the human body and also determine specific areas that need to be addressed before humans journey into deep space.
NASA has released a set of videos to help explain why this area of research is such an important part of the Twins Study. The series explains in friendly terms about omics, its significance in the Twins Study on the space station, and the advantages of personalized medicine for astronauts and humans on Earth.
Plans are to release videos 6 and 7 when astronaut Kate Rubins sequences DNA in space for the first time later this summer. The final video will be released in conjunction with National Twins Day in August.