Twin astronauts will help determine effects of space on human health

CHAVA: Within the last hour, a Soyuz rocket launched in Kazakhstan.

HOUSTON: And liftoff… A year in space starts now, Kelly, Kornienko and Padalka on their way to the International Space Station.

CAMILLE: Two of the astronauts on board – American Scott Kelly and Russian Mikhail Kornienko – will live at the Space Station for a full year – twice as long as previous stays.

CHAVA: The trip gives NASA a unique chance to learn more about how the body is affected by long periods in space. Even more unusual is the chance to study a set of identical twins – Scott Kelly and his brother, former astronaut Mark Kelly. The same medical tests will be performed on the brothers over the course of the year. Mark on Earth. Scott in space.

CAMILLE: Earlier today, I spoke with Martha Vitaterna – one of the researchers who is conducting studies on the twins. She says Scott Kelly is into it.

VITATERNA It was actually him and his twin brother Mark Kelly that came up with the idea of : maybe there’s some value here of having identical twin astronauts that could benefit the science. And then NASA put out a proposal to solicit investigators to come up with ideas for what kinds of research we could do with this unique situation.

CAMILLE So there are ten studies that have been chosen by NASA. They come out of everywhere in the United States, from Stanford to Colorado to Northwestern. And they range from studying visual impairment to inflammation to cognitive cycles. Can you just tell us a little about what you’re going to be doing?

VITATERNA Yeah sure. We are going to be studying the microbiota of the gastrointestinal tract. Microbiota is the collection of microbes, primarily bacteria, that live in and on the human body. And we’ll be studying that over the course of pre-launch, during the year in space, and then post-return.

CAMILLE How is that going to work out mechanically? Have you already started taking samples?

VITATERNA Yeah, we’ve already started collecting samples from the pre-launch period, and there will be three time points during the course of the year in space. So that will be really exciting, to see whether there will be progressive changes in Scott Kelly.

CAMILLE How are you going to get the samples back to Earth from the International Space Station?

VITATERNA Well, they’ll send them back. And then they’ll retrieve them from wherever they’ll splash down, and then probably bring them to the Johnson Space Center and then bring them to us.

CAMILLE What sort of results would pop up at you and show you that something is really happening here in space?

VITATERNA That’s an interesting question. It’s a little hard to predict. We are talking about space, so this is the big unknown, right? We have integrated data collection in a wide range of the astronauts’ health. So if we start to see a particular balance in the microbiota is going along with a change in inflammation, or a change of cardiovascular function, that’s really interesting data that may point to, okay, this bacterial balance is really critical for this aspect of health.

CAMILLE Right. Okay. So about twins. I’m a twin.

VITATERNA Oh are you?

CAMILLE I am. I can see that twins are obviously very interesting subjects for science. Does this mean we have a leg up if we want to go into space and do cool things?

VITATERNA Well, maybe. This is NASA’s first foray into looking at genetics and genomics. Obviously for those types of studies, twins are very interesting. I don’t think the fact that he was a twin had anything to do with Scott Kelly being selected. But that doesn’t mean that the decision won’t be made differently going forward. You should call up NASA and ask them.

CAMILLE Yeah, that would be a good career change for me, I bet. And finally, they’re launching this afternoon. What will you be doing at that time?

VITATERNA So we’re going to take over one of the larger lecture halls here on campus and project the launch, NASA does live video streams.

CAMILLE How excited are you?

VITATERNA It’s hard to express. It’s something I never thought I would get to do. This is – like you can hear, I’m kind of tongue-tied, I don’t know how to say it.

CAMILLE: Martha Vitaterna researches genetics at Northwestern University.

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