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NASA’s Human Exploration Has Yet Another Hurdle With Fears of Liver Damage

Atlantis space shuttle.  (Image:  tpsdave  via   pixabay /  CC0 1.0)
Atlantis space shuttle. (Image: tpsdave via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

The ability for humans to survive long-term space travel is now in doubt after mice returned from a 13.5-day ride on the final Atlantis space shuttle flight. The mice were found to have returned with early signs of liver disease.

Scientists at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus examined the livers of the mice and found that spaceflight had induced scarring and long-term damage. Karen Jonscher, PhD, and an associate professor of anesthesiology and a physicist at CU Anschutz, who is the study’s lead author, said in a statement:

However, the prospect of liver damage raises new concerns, and cannot simply be ignored. The spaceflight seems to have activated specialized liver cells, which could induce scarring and cause long-term damage to the organ.

Jonscher explained:

Scientists have been studying the impact of spaceflight on human physiology for some time, however, it has been focused on bone, muscle, brain, and cardiovascular function.

“Yet studies suggesting that astronauts who spent time in space developed diabetes-like symptoms link microgravity with metabolism and point toward the liver, the major organ of metabolism, as a possible target of the space environment,” wrote the University of Colorado.

After their time spent orbiting Earth in 2011, scientists share and study the internal organs. Jonscher’s team discovered that the spaceflight had resulted in an increase of fat storage in their liver, after comparing pair-fed mice on Earth.

Loss of retinol, (Vitamin A), and changes to levels of genes that are responsible for breaking down fats were also found. Because of this the mice have shown signs of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and possible early stages of fibrosis, which can be one of the more progressive consequences of NAFLD.

Jonscher expressed her concerns, saying that:

These are significant findings, and will have a huge impact on NASA’s plans on longer deep space missions especially going to Mars. However, Jonscher concedes that more studies need to be done on mice with longer duration space flights, “to see if there are compensatory mechanisms that come into play that might protect them from serious damage.”

Jonscher also pointed out the liver damage, may have been from the stress of spaceflight and re-entry to Earth.

To find out more about rodent research in microgravity watch this video from NASA Johnson:

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