Astronauts’ blood shows signs of DNA mutations from spaceflight

Astronauts’ cancer risk requires careful monitoring, concludes a study that stored spaceflight blood for 20 years.

All fourteen astronauts in the study, from NASA’s space shuttle program, had DNA mutations in hematopoietic stem cells, a Nature Communications Biology study (opens in a new tab) August 31 concluded. The mutations, while unusually high given the age of the astronauts, were nonetheless below a key threshold of concern.

While the study is unique for storing astronauts’ blood for so long, the results aren’t mind-blowing. Instead, the researchers suggest that astronauts should undergo periodic blood screening to keep an eye out for possible mutations. (And that needs to be seen in context; another 2019 study, for example, found that astronauts don’t die of cancer from ionizing space radiation.)

Related: NASA’s Space Shuttle Last Voyage: A Look Back at Atlantis’ Final Mission 10 Years Later

Monitoring programs will nonetheless be crucial as NASA aims for long-duration deep-space missions through its Artemis program to the moon and later human excursions to Mars, the new study team said in A declaration (opens in a new tab). (The New Study and the 2019 Cancer Study both largely considered short-duration mission astronauts.)

The team decided to pursue the new study in light of “the growing interest in commercial spaceflight and deep space exploration, and the potential health risks of exposure to various associated harmful factors.” to repeated or long-duration exploration space missions,” study lead author Dr. David Goukassian and professor of cardiology at Icahn Mount Sinai said in the release.

NASA recently changed its lifetime radiation requirements for astronauts which critics said discriminated against women, who historically had lower limits than male astronauts. (To date, other genders have not been disclosed in the agency population.)

A rear view of a space shuttle launching into space. Radiation risks to astronauts on these short-duration missions are still under investigation. (Image credit: NASA)

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The researchers found a higher frequency of somatic mutations in the genes of the 14 astronauts considered in the study, compared to the statistics of the population that has been in space.

The space cohort carried out between 1998 and 2001 shuttle missions with an average duration of 12 days. About 85% of the group were men and six of the astronauts were on their first mission.

The researchers took whole blood samples from the astronauts twice, exactly 10 days before the spaceflight and on the day of landing. White blood cells were collected once, three days after landing. The blood samples were then left untouched in a freezer for 20 years, cooling to minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 80 degrees Celsius).

However, observed somatic mutations in genes were less than 2%. People who exceed this threshold are at greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease and certain forms of cancer, according to the statement.

“The presence of these mutations does not necessarily mean that astronauts will develop cardiovascular disease or cancer, but there is a risk that over time this may occur due to continued and prolonged exposure to the extreme environment. deep space,” Goukassian added.

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