April 19, 2019
Kansas State University researchers send mice into space for immune system studies
Forty mice with Kansas State University ties were launched to the International Space Station April 17 to learn more about human health.
A team of researchers that includes Stephen Keith Chapes, Kansas State University professor of biology and interim director of the university's Johnson Cancer Research Center, is studying the impact of space flight on the immune system's ability to respond to things that make people sick.
Space flight causes changes to the immune system. One of the most important components of that system is the B cell. B cells make antibody molecules that are secreted into the body to gather up and help rid the body of harmful substances, including bacteria, fungi and viruses.
The TARBIS project — Tetanus Antibody Response by B cells in Space — will determine if mice are able to mount the same kind of B-cell response they do on Earth. Chapes and his students at Kansas State University are collaborating with Loma Linda University researchers led by Michael Pecaut.
"We are very excited for this flight, having spent the past five years preparing for it," Chapes said. "The astronauts will now be our hands in space to perform the experiment."
The study also will investigate whether the diversity of the B-cell population is affected by the space environment. This unique study involves injecting the mice with Tetanus toxoid while on the International Space Station. That is the same type of vaccine humans get when cut or scraped by contaminated objects like dirty nails.
According to Chapes, this project is Earth-relevant because space changes the body, making it function as if it were older.
"Space offers an excellent model of aging, as it demonstrates bone, muscle and immune system deterioration, as well as increased susceptibility to disease," Chapes said.
This study also will test a drug for its ability to reverse some of the deterioration. Since immunocompromised individuals are more susceptible to infections and the development of cancer, this experiment will provide some insights on treating those conditions.
Chapes' group is not new to the space environment. They have had experiments on 13 different Space Shuttle missions.
NASA's website provides information about the TARBIS project specifically and about this NASA mission to the International Space Station.