A team of Maltese researchers will be participating in a study on astronaut blood in a bid to better understand the phenomenon of space anaemia and how that knowledge can be used to better treat anaemia patients here on earth.

University of Malta researchers, led by Joseph Borg, a professor of biomedical science, in collaboration with the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI), will investigate blood samples from crew members of the Polaris Dawn mission, which is set to launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida next March.

Space travel is known to take a physical toll on the human body and, in fact, all astronauts return to earth suffering from anaemia – a condition of the human body when there are not enough healthy red blood cells in circulation.

Red blood cells are responsible for providing oxygen to the body’s tissue.

Recent studies authored by Guy Trudel, from OHRI, who is leading the full investigation, found that red blood cell death increased during space flight and microgravity.

The research found that while on earth human bodies create and destroy around two million red blood cells per second, astronauts in space experienced a loss of three million red blood cells destroyed per second, which resulted in an increased loss of 54 per cent of cells more than that experienced by people on earth.

Borg said: “Space anaemia is still poorly understood. There are obvious triggers, such as stress on the human body during space flight and microgravity, which contribute to hemolysis of the red blood cells.

“They get destroyed inside the vascular system instead of being purged in the spleen. However, when astronauts fly back to earth, they remain persistently anaemic for more than six months, indicating that other factors must be at play.”

The Maltese research team, Borg explained, will be looking at the anaemia model to see how globin genes are disturbed as well as how adult haemoglobin is affected and reverts back to foetal haemoglobin.

“The lessons we learn, the knowledge we gain and the results obtained will edge us closer to a cure for beta-type haemoglobinopathies such as thalassaemia and sickle cell disease,” he said.

Borg said the researchers will be working with astronauts from the Polaris programme, a planned commercial human spaceflight company

“My team will look at lysed red blood cells from human astronauts before they launch to space, on blood obtained during that high earth orbit in space  and upon their return back to earth after five days,” Borg said.

“The lysed blood is analysed for haemoglobin fractions that we have already been doing on the Maltese population for the past decade and more. We have evidence that blood in space favours a more primitive/earlier form of red cell production and haemoglobin synthesis (termed foetal haemoglobin) as opposed to adult haemoglobin.”

This is not Borg’s first foray into taking his work into space.

Last year, he led a team of researchers that sent Malta’s first science experiment, Project Maleth, into space.

The research sent tissue samples of diabetic foot ulcers to study the effects of microgravity on them. The second set of samples, dubbed Maleth II, was sent into space last July.

The project hopes to improve precision-based medicine to treat diabetic foot ulcers, which, left untreated, can lead to amputations.

 

 

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