Irish technologies to keep astronauts fit and healthy in space

Researchers to identify ways to keep astronauts fit and healthy in space.
Pictured are L-R: Seán Sherlock T.D Minister for Research & Innovation (left) with researchers Dr Dónal O'Gorman, DCU and Dr Brian Caulfield, UCD who have been contracted by the European Space Agency to identify ways to keep astronauts fit and healthy in space. The contracts were secured through Ireland's membership of the European Space Agency which is managed by Enterprise Ireland. Photo credit: Gary O'Neill

Helping astronauts deal with ‘accelerated ageing’ and a lack of exercise in space are the focus of two European Space Agency research contracts awarded to Irish researchers announced by Seán Sherlock T.D Minister for Research & Innovation today (18th November 2011).

The two European Space Agency (ESA) contracts totalling €135k won by Dr. Dónal O’Gorman, DCU and Dr. Brian Caulfield, UCD arises directly from Ireland’s membership of ESA and its Space Programme.  Ireland’s membership of ESA is funded by the Irish Government and is managed by Enterprise Ireland. Membership of ESA enables Irish research institutes and companies to participate in ESA programmes and secure valuable contracts.

Congratulating the two researchers, Minister Sherlock said, “The awarding of ESA contracts to Irish researchers is further evidence of the leading role Ireland plays in pushing the boundaries of biomedical research for the European Human Spaceflight programme. We are seeing a growing number of Irish companies developing biomedical technologies with ESA support, which contributes to employment generation in Ireland and which can also benefit society here on Earth. The ESA space-related research in Ireland builds on the strategic investments that the Government has made in life sciences in the past decade through Enterprise Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland.”

Dr. Bryan Rodgers, Enterprise Ireland explained why this research is so important; “astronauts can be in space for up to 18 months on missions to Mars and on board the International Space Station and so they have to adapt to the specific challenges of life in space such as the absence of gravity, high levels of radiation, and cramped living conditions, which often result in deterioration of the astronauts’ heart, muscle and bone condition.

The research of Dr O’Gorman and Dr. Caulfield will address these issues and find solutions to enable astronauts to function healthily on critical missions. This research also has applications in the healthcare markets back here on Earth, as the characteristics of natural human aging are similar to those experienced by astronauts”.

During his visit to Ireland this week, ESA astronaut Christer Fuglesang, who is also Head of Science & Applications Division in ESA’s Human Spaceflight & Operation Directorate, welcomed the announcement saying, “Keeping in shape is always important, but working out in space is even more crucial in order to counteract the detrimental effects of weightlessness. We still have a lot to learn about how the body reacts in space and find the best methods to keep astronauts fit, also when returning to Earth. I'm very pleased that researchers in Ireland are actively participating in this important field, which eventually will help us to send humans all the way to Mars”.

Dr Dónal O’Gorman, Director of the Centre for Preventive Medicine at DCU, will use the ESA funding to investigate novel ways to prevent the negative impact of micro-gravity on the body. One of the challenges faced by astronauts is that the body seems to go through a process of accelerated ageing while in space. Astronauts who have been to the International Space Station lose muscle and bone mass, while they also begin to develop risk factors more commonly associated with older people. Dr O'Gorman is leading an ESA team to identify biomarkers to track these changes and is investigating if artificial gravity or nutritional modifications can prevent the negative consequences.

The best way to simulate microgravity on earth is to get people to lie in bed between 21-60 days. Dr O'Gorman will simulate the effect of artificial gravity using a specialist human centrifuge in Toulouse. In a separate study, he will be investigating the impact of a nutritional countermeasure (whey protein and a salt) on changes in metabolism and skeletal muscle mass. Both studies will help astronauts who go to space, but also have implications for healthcare on Earth, especially for the ageing process.

Dr Brian Caulfield is the Director of Technology Research for Independent Living Centre and Principal Investigator in CLARITY Centre at UCD and is currently leading the testing of this novel Neuromuscular Electrical Muscle Stimulation Exercise technology on a parabolic flight campaign in Bordeaux, France.

The technology, developed by Galway based Biomedical Research Ltd (BMR) - suppliers of electrical muscle stimulation devices for the commercial market e.g. Slendertone® and Neurotech®) - works by stimulating the large muscles of the legs.  It has already produced impressive aerobic exercise training and muscle strengthening effects during ground-based studies, and offers a potential solution to the problem of how astronauts exercise aerobically in the confines of a spacecraft.  The parabolic flight campaign provides an opportunity to test this technology in a zero gravity environment, similar to that experienced on the International Space Station. 

The ESA funding is provided through two programmes - ELIPS ( European programme for life and physical sciences in space) and PRODEX (Programme de dévelopement d'expériences scientifiques).  Enterprise Ireland manages Ireland’s membership of the European Space Agency which allows Irish researchers to access microgravity test services including parabolic flights and bed rest facilities.

About ELIPS and PRODEX

ELIPS is the European programme for LIfe and Physical sciences in Space. The ELIPS programme is intended to prepare and perform research on the International Space Station (ISS) and other carriers such as sounding rockets and unmanned orbital vehicles, in fundamental and applied Life and Physical sciences. ELIPS is an indispensable programme to ensure that Europe’s investment in the development and exploitation of the ISS produces the best scientific results. Applications of research in space will find its way into new medical techniques, industrial innovations and environmental technologies, for the general benefit of Earth’s population.

PRODEX stands for the PROgramme de Développement d'EXpériences scientifiques. Through Enterprise Ireland, Irish research institutes have been enabled to participate in PRODEX since 1987, developing scientific instruments and experiments for ESA missions. Since then, Irish researchers have made significant contributions in ESA’s science, microgravity and earth observation programmes.

About Christer Fuglesang (http://bit.ly/cfuglesang)

Christer Fuglesang, of ESA, is the first astronaut from Sweden, and has participated in two missions to the International Space Station, including five space walks. He has held positions as Senior Fellow at CERN, and as an Affiliate Professor at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm. He is currently Head of Science & Applications Division in the Human Spaceflight & Operations Directorate at the European Space Agency’s research technical centre in Noordwijk, The Netherlands.

For more information contact:

Grace Labanyi
Enterprise Ireland
Communications Officer

Grace Labanyi
+353 1 7272746 
+353 87 3286404