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April 12, International day of Human Space Flight. The results of a study carried out by the molecular biologists of the Sant'Anna School, jointly with Italian and Eurpoean Space Agencies, on human endothelial cell grown on the ISS and returned on Earth

Publication date: 04.04.2022
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On the International Day of Human Space Flight, which was established to commemorate the first Human Flight in Space (the Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human to orbit onboard a space capsule on April 12, 1961), Debora Angeloni, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology of the Sant'Anna School (BioRobotics Institute), shares the results of a project supported by the Italian Space Agency and the European Space Agency. The study focuses on human endothelial cells which were sent to the ISS International Space Station and returned to Pisa, where they "told a story of adaptation to the extraordinary conditions of Space"

By Debora Angeloni (*)

“Since the beginning of human spaceflights, experimental biologists have been able to study life in a new condition, the absence of gravity. This is all but insignificant, considering that the force of gravity has been an immutable feature to human evolution since dawn of life. Thanks to inhabited space flights, we have realized, altough not fully understood yet, how great an impact gravity has had on determining how we are made and how we “function”, and this clarity came mostly because in the absence of gravity, things are not quite right". 

"Upon returning from missions, in fact, astronauts report health issues due to the impairment of the endothelium, an organ which is fundamental in our bodies’ adjustment to the external environment. The biologists at the Scuola Sant’Anna are carrying out research projects aimed at studying human endothelial cells. The cells were shipped to the International Space Station with the support of ESA (European Space Agency) and ASI (Italian space agency) and it is expected that these studies will be of help in solving health issues affecting astronauts as well as in ensuring safer travel conditions for them".

"Back in Pisa these cells cultured on the ISS and studied using molecular biology techniques, told us a story of adaptation to the extraordinary conditions of outer Space. In particular, it was observed that during the journey, the activation of one of their defense mechanisms, called autophagy, was inhibited. This is a key cellular mechanism, because under normal conditions, it helps us to overcome stress by selectively removing damaged components. Autophagy permits degradation and recycling of cellular components, energy saving as well as the elimination of faulty components".

"Since all experimental results raise further questions, we are currently investigating whether the reactivation of autophagy can indeed ameliorate the endothelium adaptation to  spaceflight. Space research is expected to benefit also people on Earth who, due to physiological ageing or other problems, are experiencing ailments similar to those affecting the astronauts". 

(*) Associate Professor of Molecular Biology at the Sant'Anna School 

The paper is available HERE.