Going into space is a goal many people would want to achieve, and now that space agencies talk about the Moon and Mars, about settling colonies, it feels like it’s all going to soon be a reality. But before a deeper space mission, people must know more about the human body and the dangers that lurk in space.
Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) in Washington, DC, wants to find out how to prepare astronauts for journeys into the solar system. So far, their study on the gastrointestinal (GI) tract in humans when exposed to ionizing radiation doesn’t come with good news.
According to the researchers, astronauts will be exposed to radiation from different sources, and there is nothing that can effectively block the radiation. Here is what the project leader and investigator of the study, Kamal Datta, stated in a press release:
“With the current shielding technology, it is difficult to protect astronauts from the adverse effects of heavy ion radiation. Although there may be a way to use medicines to counter these effects, no such agent has been developed yet.”
The GI tract is the perfect system to be used in experiments because scientists know the effects of ionizing radiation on its processes. The cells in the tract usually get renewed in 3-5 days by the division of new cells. However, radiation can disturb the process and make many changes – even leading to formation of tumors.
Heavy Ion Radiation Increasing the Risk of Cancer
The NASA Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL) in New York had scientists use mice in their trials. They exposed the animals to small doses of heavy ion radiation or gamma rays. The team used a control group of mice to see how the others were affected by space radiation. The ones exposed to radiation were euthanized – some were euthanized after 7 days, some after 60 days and other 12 months later after the exposure.
Results of the analysis on mice showed that gamma rays had a modest effect on the cells in the small intestine, and that within 60 days, the cells recovered. The heavy ion irradiation came with negative results: the cells were changed, their migration was slower, the cell proliferation was increased and the DNA damage was seen even a year after the exposure.
A second set of mice exposed to a dose of heavy ion radiation was euthanized 150 days after the radiation, and scientists saw that the changes in the small intestine of the mice increased the risk of developing tumors. Datta concluded that:
“While short trips, like the times astronauts traveled to the Moon, may not expose them to this level of damage, the real concern is lasting injury from a long trip, such as a Mars or other deep space missions which would be much longer.”
Andre Blair s is the lead editor for Advocator.ca. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Andre specializes in environmental health, but writes on a variety of issues.