The Belgian research team plans to travel to Mars after 2030

A team of researchers from Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK-CEN) is participating in an international research project on ways how to reduce health risks from radiation when travelling in space. The results can pave the way to return trips to Mars in the future and contribute to solving health problems on Earth.

A recent report states that an astronaut experiences many times more radiation that we do on our own planet. Cosmic radiation and microgravity represent two major health risks and limit the prospects of long spaceflights. The necessity to protect the human body from the effects of cosmic radiation and the risk of cancer has largely been overlooked until now.

The study, with the support of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Belgian federal science policy office (BELSPO), was published in the bio-medical journal Oncotarget under the title “Vive la Radiorésistance”. It explores different strategies to “lay the foundation for a comprehensive roadmap towards highly radioresistant humans”. The biomedical and biotechnological methods could also be applied to enhancing healthy longevity on Earth.

The Brussels Times asked the two co-authors, professor Sarah Baatout and dr Marjan Moreels from the unit for radiobiology at SCK-CEN, which method they believe in.

“We think that the first promising way in space travel is to characterize the genetic components of radio sensitivity,” they replied. “To send astronauts to Mars, it would be better to select the ones that have the highest chance to be able to repair the DNA damage induced by radiation.”

Genetic screening has already started to be applied for radiotherapy patients in which the dose of radiotherapy treatment is adapted as a function of the genetic sensitivity of the patient.

They also believe very much in regenerative technologies in which for example 3D bio printing could be used in space. “For each astronaut, we would need to take on board frozen cultures of most of his/her cell types to be able to grow them in case the organ and tissue becomes dysfunctional.”

Another promising area is to prevent cell death (apoptosis). A lot of research is taking place to inhibit cell death in neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer and Parkinson, for example). The risk is that by inhibiting cell death, cells might become immortal like cancer cells, which can be problematic if cells start to overgrow.

Baatout and Moreels do not exclude immersing astronauts in hibernation (think about bears going to sleep during the winter). This might seem as taken from science fiction but the researchers say that, “it would be great, if we could find a solution to hibernate people for very distant planetary systems”.

In fact, scientists are studying hibernation and suspended animation in humans through various protocols related to anaesthesia inducing stasis (decreasing slightly body temperature, slowing down heart rate and blood pressure). It seems to work for up to two weeks for patients because automated systems would be needed to perform necessary automated tasks.

“We are definitely not there yet,” the researchers admit. “A big problem that would remain is from the moment an individual is not moving anymore, then the whole metabolism is impaired with important physiological consequences.”

Manned space travel to Mars is still far away and the best estimate of the two researchers is that it will be possible first in the 2030-ies. Before that we could hopefully benefit of their research for life on Earth.

Some space effects are comparable to ageing, such as reduced muscle mass, accelerated osteoporosis, weakened circulatory system, immune ageing, and accelerated skin deterioration. “Any space research trying to mitigate ageing will have a direct benefit for the population on Earth.”

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