UofT researcher to conduct a real-time study of astronauts while on mission

A University of Toronto scientist will be performing real-time blood cell analyses on astronauts to reveal how time, space, and speed affect the immune system. Dr. Chen Wang hopes that this research will lead to an understanding of how stress and other environmental factors impact our ability to fight disease.

Wang, a professor in the faculty of medicine’s department of laboratory medicine and pathobiology and a clinician-scientist at Mount Sinai Hospital, will be leading the project named Immuno Profile, to study the astronauts on the International Space Station over the course of five years.

Canadian astronaut and physician, David Saint-Jacques, will be part of the next mission to the space station and will participate in several Canadian-made health experiments announced by the Canadian Space Agency.

“It has been documented that spaceflight has significant impacts on the immune system, probably due to microgravity, high G-force, and stress,” says Wang. “So far, all the tests have been performed on ground with blood samples taken before and after spaceflight. This study will be the first time we’ll be able to see the immunity changes in real time on the International Space Station.”

The astronauts will use a device that will take finger-prick blood samples during the flight mission, then the information will be sent back to Wang and his team for analysis.

“We expect to see immune cell and cytokine mediator changes,” says Wang. “We’ll develop a way to identify different types of immune cells and to see if the cells are functioning well or not.”

Wang also commented on the uniqueness of the space flight environment to study immune system stressors. Immune dysfunction relates to many diseases, including cancers, viral infections, MS, type I diabetes, and even the aging process. The weightlessness of space can also be used to learn more about the less-understood lymphatic system, which depends on the pressure to flow properly.

“We know that lymphocytes are major components of the immune system, and many cytokine immune mediators regulate the immune system in response to stress and environments,” says Wang. “We hope to develop a new model for how the immune system responds to circadian rhythm and various stresses.”

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