Long journeys to Mars puts astronauts at greater risk of leukaemia

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Long journeys to Mars puts astronauts at greater risk of leukaemia

According to the new research from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, mice transplanted with human stem cells to measure the potential effects of deep space radiation on our species have not reacted well to a series of tests. NASA authorities have also added that radiation exposure has always been believed to be one of the most unsafe aspects of traveling to Mars.

Senior project researcher and associate professor of regenerative medicine Dr. Christopher Porada said that radiation exposure could up the risk of leukemia in space travelers in two ways.

Radiation practically shut the HSCs down, impeding their ability to produce blood cells by up to 80 percent.

"We found that genetic damage to HSCs directly led to leukemia", Porada said. "Secondly, radiation also altered the ability of HSCs to generate T and B cells, types of white blood cells involved in fighting foreign "invaders" like infections or tumor cells", he explained in a statement.

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center researchers found a double-whammy effect: the radiation not only caused mutations in key cells, but also weakened immune response - meaning the body would not be able to rid itself of the malignant cells.

The researchers aren't just throwing problems at the Mars mission, though; as part of their work they're also looking into the use of a common dietary supplement for its ability to protect astronauts from the damaging effects of radiation. The HSCs were incorporated in both in vitro and mouse models.

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Secondly, the radiation also made it more hard for the stem cells to produce the kinds of white blood cells that fight foreign invaders, reducing the immune system's ability to "eliminate the malignant cells that arise as a result of radiation-induced mutations". The mice went on to develop T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

For the time in almost six and a half years, the US Congress has passed a bill to fund the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), allocating $19.5 billion to the agency for research, exploration and space operations.

For its projected Mars mission, NASA grouped the risks into five categories, namely gravity fields, isolation or confinement, hostile or closed environments, space radiation, and distance from Earth.

With a distance of over 200m km to our nearest planetary neighbour, a constant bombardment of this radiation would have astronauts sick before they even arrive after the three year journey. The trip to Mars is 120-million-mile-long and a roundtrip would take around 36 months.

Beyond the technical challenges of such a mission, scientists want to get a better understanding of how deep space travel can alter the human body, before the journey commences.

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