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For nearly 24 hours, Joseph Tash and about 20 other American scientists worked continuously in a lab in Moscow last month to get everything they could out of the prize they’d been given.
Their gift: six mice, just returned from 30 days in Earth’s orbit. Tash, a professor at the Kansas University Medical Center, and the other scientists had been building toward this moment for about five years, and now every move had to be executed just as they’d rehearsed, so they could learn as much as they could out of their examination of the mice.
Tash, a reproductive biologist, works in the KU School of Medicine’s Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology. Since 1996, he’s conducted research funded by NASA on sea urchins and mice, looking for clues about how space might affect humans’ reproductive systems. Last month he traveled to Moscow for the landing of an unmanned satellite, called Bion-M1, that carried a variety of animals in a collaboration between NASA and the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems.
It was Nash’s biggest space research opportunity yet — and, he said, the biggest mission of its kind ever.
“It’s the largest and longest animal biological experiment in any agency’s history,” Tash said.
Tash has led efforts at KUMC to develop a male birth control pill, work for which he received a mock scolding from comedian Stephen Colbert on “The Colbert Report” last year. (On that project, he’s meeting soon with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin discussing clinical trials.)
But this space mission was part of another portion of his research, which looks into how the radiation exposure and lack of gravity in space affect animals’ reproductive systems. Since he began working with NASA, he has studied sea urchins and rodents that traveled aboard Space Shuttle missions.
Then, back in 2007, NASA invited scientists to apply for a new mission, the Bion-M1, that would send a group of animals into orbit for 30 days aboard an unmanned satellite. Tash and eight other lead investigators were picked to study the effects of the trip on different parts of the mice aboard, ranging from the reproductive systems to arteries to their spines.
“Between the Russian collaborators and the U.S. team, no tissue was wasted,” Tash said. Years of planning and millions of dollars had gone into the project, so the scientists made use of everything they could.
The craft launched in late April and landed in late May near the Russia-Kazakhstan border. When it landed, Tash and the other scientists waited in Moscow, where the animals that survived would be shipped on a military plane.
The team received the animals in the evening one day, and they worked continuously until the next evening.
“We were basically working almost 24 hours nonstop,” Tash said.
Most of the scientists had experience working with other space projects, he said, but they still rehearsed their process several times. Some of them needed to measure or test the animals as soon as they arrived, before they were euthanized. Others needed to package organs or other materials to ship back to the United States for study. Tash was in both groups: he needed sperm samples from the mice, all male, as well as their testes, to study possible physical and genetic changes back in Kansas.
Everything went smoothly, he said.
“We were a really experienced and well-greased, cohesive team,” Tash said.
According to media reports from Russia, some of the mice and gerbils aboard the satellite died on the trip. But the six mice that went to the U.S. team of scientists, Tash said, were in near-perfect health.
“It was quite remarkable,” Tash said.
His previous research suggests that effects on reproductive systems could be an obstacle for future long-term space travel, and Tash said he expects to see an effect on the mice’s sperm production, especially because of the radiation exposure that results from magnetic fields and other factors in space. Few parts of the human body are more susceptible to radiation exposure than reproductive organs, male or female.
Tash will return to Moscow in July to repeat the examination process on a control group of mice, which will have spent 30 days in similar conditions but on the ground.
He has his next space-related project lined up, too: Soon after returning from Russia, he received another NASA grant for a research project aboard the International Space Station, which could lead to even longer stays in space.
The research by Tash and other scientists isn’t just about assessing the safety of space travel, though. Space flight tends to have an effect on the body similar to aging, he said, in effect causing parts of the body to age six to 10 times faster than normal. So these studies can also help scientists better understand the aging process and treat resulting problems.
“Part of our success in achieving the grants to do this research is that we have to also emphasize and have an eye on what we do in terms of Earth benefit,” Tash said. “And I think it’s important to keep that in mind.”