Immunology experiment aboard historic shuttle mission

July 16, 1999

BOZEMAN, MONT.--If the space shuttle Columbia lifts off from Kennedy Space Center July 20, 1999, as planned, many Americans may recall the day 30 years ago that Apollo 11 astronauts first walked on the moon.

Others may note that Tuesday's mission is led by Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a U.S. space mission.

But a group of scientists and students from Bozeman, Mont., will be thinking about what's tucked into Columbia's mid-deck locker and whether it will tell them anything about why astronauts are more vulnerable to infections in space.

"It appears that the immune system is not very efficient when it's working in a microgravity environment," said Robert Bargatze of LigoCyte Pharmaceuticals in Bozeman.

A Russian cosmonaut, for example, developed a urinary tract infection while on Mir. None of the antibiotics aboard wiped out the infection, Bargatze said, and the cosmonaut had to return to earth. He was so weak that space officials worried about him surviving the stress of re-entry.

With missions planned to Mars and aboard the International Space Station, scientists need to know what effects long-term space flight might have on health, said Montana State University physicist and one-time astronaut Loren Acton.

That's why Bargatze plus a group of scientists and students at MSU designed an experiment that will test the role gravity plays in the complicated workings of infection-fighting white blood cells.

On earth, white blood cells stick like Velcro to the inside of blood vessels when it's time to fight invaders. Following some chemical cues, they squeeze through the vessel walls into infected tissue, where they do battle with bacteria, viruses and other enemies. Gravity appears to play a role because the sticking, called adhesion, occurs along the bottom of simulated blood vessels during experiments.

But in space, Bargatze thinks, microgravity may alter blood flow. White blood cells may not stick to vessel walls like they do on earth, and without that initial adhesion the cells can't maneuver against enemy agents.

"We want to know what the effect of microgravity is on the immune response," he said. "We think adhesion may be the key."

The idea for the space experiment came after Bargatze's brother Lee, a graduate student working with Acton, told the former astronaut about his brother's studies. Acton became interested and helped make connections with BioServe Space Technologies in Colorado. BioServe schedules and helps prepare commercial payloads for spaceflight.

"The advantage of going through a commercial enterprise is you can get a flight," Acton said. "If we went through the NASA space science program, we'd be lucky to get a flight in our lifetime."

LigoCyte scientists, three MSU College of Agriculture students and veterinary molecular biologist Mark Jutila spent about 18 months developing the experiment that will run automatically 10 hours after Tuesday's proposed launch. Grants from the Montana Space Grant Consortium, MSU TechLink Center and Fisher Scientific made the work possible.

In less than two minutes, sample cells and fluid will be pumped through thin capillary-like threads encased in 16 tubes. The Bozeman scientists will repeat the experiment on the ground at Cape Kennedy and compare results with the samples from space.

If Columbia lands in the early hours of July 24 as planned, the scientists will collect their samples and fly home right away to begin analyzing the results.

Ultimately, LigoCyte is interested in learning enough about adhesion to develop pharmaceuticals that could boost flagging immune responses on earth and in space, said Bargatze.

"The space environment puts stress on the body, so it's a good environment to test potential drugs that may boost the immune system," he said.

Acton's dream is for the International Space Station to make room for ongoing studies of immunology and other complex life processes, all of which seem to return to normal once a space traveler has landed. Except the swollen heads, he quipped.

Montana State University

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