UA College Partners with Space Tango to Test Diagnostic Tool in Space
Researchers at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix are partnering with Space Tango, a private aerospace company that designs, builds and operates facilities on the International Space Station, to develop an easy way to test astronauts’ health in space.
Led by Director and Professor Frederic Zenhausern, PhD, MBA, the UA Center for Applied NanoBioscience and Medicine (ANBM) has received three independent NASA grants. The latest funding will allow researchers to develop a diagnostic tool — a miniature, syringe-like device that can detect bio-agents and hundreds of biomarkers in blood or saliva — and test it in space.
“This is the next step in the evolution of this technology toward use on a test flight,” Dr. Zenhausern said, referring to the “vertical flow” device, a novel technology patented and licensed by Tech Launch Arizona, which helps bring UA innovations to the world through commercial pathways.
ANBM researcher Jian Gu, PhD, an associate professor in the college’s Basic Medical Sciences Department, will work with the Kentucky-based company to integrate the diagnostic platform into Space Tango’s automated hardware.
Jana Stoudemire, director of commercial innovation at Space Tango, said the company is pleased to partner with the research team at the UA College of Medicine – Phoenix. The device will be part of a payload housed in one of its autonomous CubeLabs that can provide near real-time data and monitoring in microgravity.
“Everything in the CubeLab has to be extremely well-designed and simple to use in the contained environment of a space mission and the International Space Station,” she said.
The basic questions researchers have to answer are: How do you take a blood or saliva sample in microgravity and how is it processed by an astronaut en route to Mars?
Dr. Zenhausern said in the center’s first NASA grant, the chemistry of the device was tested for protein markers. Its application to nucleic acid detection was demonstrated under a second NASA Human Research Program grant, led by ANBM researcher Jerome Lacombe, PhD, an assistant professor in the medical school’s Basic Medical Sciences Department. This latest grant — $100,000 from NASA and its Translational Research Institute for Space Health — will pursue with Space Tango the development of the diagnostic test using a human factor engineering approach to validate its performance in microgravity.
“What is exciting is that NASA is investing more funds in space exploration and is considering human health as its first priority to succeed in long-duration missions,” Dr. Zenhausern said. “Until now, very little monitoring of the health of astronauts has occurred, but deep space travel will require cutting-edge technologies for astronaut health and performance.”
Recent news about the health of U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent a year at the International Space Station in the confines of microgravity, have questioned the promise for long-term space travel. Other reports earlier this year that space flight could activate dormant viruses like shingles, chickenpox and herpes heighten the importance of developing ways to monitor and treat health conditions of astronauts in space.
Leroy Chiao, PhD, a former NASA astronaut, International Space Station commander and ANBM consultant, said he was not surprised by the report in March.
“We know that under stress, certain genes can turn on and off,” he said. “Your body in space is under stress, so it makes sense that the stress can cause some genes to turn on and others to turn off.”
Dr. Chiao said one of the biggest worries of many astronauts is how their bodies will react to exposure to radiation. He said he is impressed with the Center’s most recent project and its portfolio of technologies for radiation countermeasures.
“If this takes us one step closer to learning more about radiation resistance, that’s great,” he said.
*Astronaut photos courtesy of Space Tango.
About the College
Founded in 2007, the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix inspires and trains exemplary physicians, scientists and leaders to optimize health and health care in Arizona and beyond. By cultivating collaborative research locally and globally, the college accelerates discovery in a number of critical areas — including cancer, stroke, traumatic brain injury and cardiovascular disease. Championed as a student-centric campus, the college has graduated 669 physicians, all of whom received exceptional training from nine clinical partners and more than 2,600 diverse faculty members. As the anchor to the Phoenix Bioscience Core, which is projected to have an economic impact of $3.1 billion by 2025, the college prides itself on engaging with the community, fostering education, inclusion, access and advocacy.