United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Space Station Experiment Could Benefit Aging Veterans
Woman in a lab coat examining a beaker with a small amount of red liquid.
VA scientist Dr. Millie Hughes-Fulford inspects "T cells" in preparation for her experiment aboard the International Space Station.

When the space shuttle Discovery lifted off on Monday morning, April 5, Veterans had a vested interest in an experiment onboard.

A VA scientist, also a former astronaut, sent an important experiment to the International Space Station that may save the lives of elderly Veterans in the future.

Dr. Millie Hughes-Fulford is trying to find out why some white blood cells stop working the way they should in some elderly people. White blood cells help fight off infections, and if they don't do their job, it can be fatal.

An astronaut who flew aboard the space shuttle in 1991, Dr. Hughes-Fulford is now director of the Laboratory for Cell Growth at the San Francisco VA Medical Center.

Personnel aboard the International Space Station will carry out her experiment to investigate why some white blood cells stop working in the absence of gravity. The experiment has implications for disease on earth as well. On earth, some white blood cells that are so important to the body's immune system cease to function in people with untreated HIV/AIDS as well as in some elderly people, leading to the development of potentially fatal infections.

Simplified, the immune system protects us against disease by identifying and destroying germs and tumor cells.

"From the beginning of the US Apollo moon program, we've known that about half of our astronauts develop suppressed immune systems either during flight or shortly afterwards, and we have since learned that non-functioning white blood cells known as 'T cells' are at least partly responsible," says Hughes-Fulford, who is also a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

"The 'T cell' is the quarterback of the white blood cells and it activates the rest of the team. I always use that analogy to explain it to my husband.

"If we can get to the root cause, we can potentially help older people, people with HIV/AIDS, and anyone else who is having problems with their immune system," Dr. Hughes-Fulford adds.

Shuttle flight STS-131 will deliver self-contained experimental rodent habitats called Animal Enclosure Modules to the space station. The orbital experimental mice will later be compared to earth-bound control mice to compare their results.

She cautions that such therapy is "many, many years away. We're just laying the groundwork. At the same time, we're uncovering fundamental mechanisms that control the immune system, and what happens to those mechanisms when you remove them from the gravity field in which they evolved."

The experiment is supported by funds from NASA that are administered by the Northern California Institute for Research and Education (NCIRE).

NCIRE, the Veterans Health Research Institute, is the leading non-profit research institute associated with a VA medical center. Its mission is to improve the health and well-being of veterans and the general public by supporting a world-class biomedical research program conducted by the University of California at San Francisco faculty at the San Francisco VA Medical Center.

The San Francisco VA Medical Center has the largest funded research program in the Veterans Health Administration with over $76 million in expenditures (FY 09) and more than 200 research scientists, all of whom are faculty members at University of California San Francisco.

Related links:

For a more scientific explanation of the experiment, see: http://news.ucsf.edu/releases/space-station-experiment-will-probe-failure-of-immune-system-in-space/*

Dr. Hughes-Fulford on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millie_Hughes-Fulford*

* Links will take you outside of the Department of Veterans Affairs Website. VA does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of the linked websites.

By Hans Petersen, VA Staff Writer