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Published on January 26, 2022

Billings Clinic Bozeman physician leading NASA-funded study of the effects of space travel on blood cells

BOZEMAN, MT – Hansjorg Schwertz, MD, PhD, an Occupational Medicine physician at Billings Clinic Bozeman, hopes that someday soon he’ll get to watch a NASA spacecraft launch in person with his children and share an important life lesson.

“I want to hold my kids’ hands and watch that rocket go up,” Dr. Schwertz said. “I want them to see that and to tell them that you can fulfill your dreams if you push through and really love what you do. It’s about showing them that you can accomplish things if you follow your passion. But in addition, you need somebody believing in you, like my wife, who never gave up on me and my dream of having one of my experiments flying to orbit.”

When it happens, that rocket will be carrying a NASA-funded experiment, led by Dr. Schwertz in collaboration with a team from the University of Utah, where he is also an Adjunct Faculty, to the International Space Station (ISS). It will look at the effects of space travel on certain blood cells and could have implications on the health and well-being of astronauts for the travel and exploration of space.

The study is one of 10 space biology research projects selected by NASA in 2021 to expand understanding of how living systems respond, adapt and acclimate to the space environment. The team working with Dr. Schwertz, who is serving as primary investigator, consists of two co-investigators and technicians, all highly qualified and invested, and based out of the University of Utah.

The study will look at the effects of space flight, micro-gravity and space radiation on megakaryocytes, which are the cells in the bone marrow responsible for making platelets. Platelets are small circulating blood cells, which aid in stopping bleeding events and coordinate responses to infectious disease, but can also induce blood clots if overly activated.

In addition to the flight experiments, ground control studies will be performed, including the simulation of the exposure to galactic cosmic rays. The studies will generate unprecedented insight into the adaptation processes needed for megakaryocytes and platelets to function under conditions experienced by humans during space flight. Furthermore, the research team hopes to directly address health concerns of crew and commercial passengers that currently limit human space exploration, which could assist in developing specific countermeasures to those concerns.

Specifically, results generated by the NASA-funded study could help to address the function of the immune system, dysregulated inflammatory reactions and inadvertent blood clot development in space crews.

“Our results will hopefully have implications for professional astronauts on low Earth orbit, but also for when we travel out farther,” Dr. Schwertz said. “In addition, this could have applications for space tourism. You have to remember, it takes a lot of resources to train people and get them up there, so you don’t want to have anything medically happening, especially if it would have been preventable.”

The research team is already performing ground-based experiments at the University of Utah to establish protocols needed for the eventual flight experiment. Next steps will include working with NASA on flight hardware assessments and continuing the preparation work for the experiment on the international space station, which could take up to a year.

“It’s a different kind of mindset than I ever experienced because this experiment is going to space,” Dr. Schwertz said. “I told my team, ‘We have to think in terms of space.’ When you dive into it, all of the experiments have to be set up for a totally new environment, new hardware, new everything. But at the same time, we have to keep in mind for whom we do it. You have to think about how astronauts are impacted by spaceflight, what happens to them up there? And we have to focus on how we can protect them better.”

Learn more about the NASA biology project.

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