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Space travel may cause premature aging

A research team from the Mayo Clinic aims to investigate whether space travel may cause senescence. The researchers will study the first all civilian crew to visit the International Space Station (ISS) next month.

During the process of senescence, cells age and stop dividing. Instead of dying, however, senescent cells accumulate in tissue throughout the body. While the crew set to travel next month will only spend ten days in space, and will thus not be exposed to serious threats of senescence, spotting early signs of this process could help future, longer-haul trips.

The scientists will take blood and urine samples from the four members of the crew both before and after their voyage to space. “This flight will give us an idea of whether routine spaceflight, without even going beyond the Van Allen belt, is associated with cell senescence,” explained study lead author Dr. James Kirkland, an expert in aging at the Mayo Clinic. 

“If we see senescence even under these conditions, we would certainly want to do some work in preparation for a longer mission. Something will have to be worked out before or longer before interplanetary flights are really feasible.”

While senescence is a well-known by-product of natural aging, scientists believe that low gravity conditions or exposure to high levels of solar radiation may speed up this process. Particularly the high gravitational forces that people are exposed to during take-off and space travel could add to DNA cellular senescence. 

“The crew on the ISS will be inside the Van Allen belt but the real worry is what’s going to happen if there is a Mars mission, and if there is a solar flare, because then you’re dealing with atomic radiation,” said Dr. Kirkland. “We’ve found in preliminary studies very low doses of atomic radiation can drive a cell into senescence at much lower levels than x-rays or gamma rays.”

“And, with atomic radiation, it could pass right through the spacecraft: it’s hard to stop. So if there’s a Mars mission this could really be a major problem. I’m a physician, not a space scientist, so my view is biased, but I’d say the health problem is pretty darn bad, and I’m very worried after what I’ve seen.”

If the study results will suggest that space travel may indeed cause senescence, there is still hope that revolutionary drugs, such as the so-called senolytics – which are currently in multiple clinical trials – could be of great help to fight these processes in space travelers.  

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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