team in NASA lab

Medical research reaches the final frontier

Medical school student conducts NASA experiments to improve astronaut health
October 22, 2018

If you’ve ever flown in an airplane, you know that your body experiences changes during the flight. The same is true—though on a more extreme scale—for astronauts during spaceflight. Researchers are looking at ways to understand these effects to make spaceflight safer, and gain new understandings about the human body both on Earth and beyond. For one Texas A&M College of Medicine student, this research has opened new doors and experiences.

Second Lieutenant Patrick Tansey, U.S. Air Force, had a childhood dream of becoming a doctor that landed him at Texas A&M College of Medicine. Little did he know along the way he would join a space medical research team that took him straight to America’s ‘gateway to the universe,’ Kennedy Space Center.

Becoming an Aggie felt natural for Tansey. Both his parents attended Texas A&M University. And just like his father, Tansey joined the Corps of Cadets when he was an undergraduate. After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in 2016, Tansey received admission to the College of Medicine. He also commissioned with the U.S. Air Force and earned a scholarship to attend medical school.

During his second year of medical school, Tansey wanted experience in basic science research. He asked Pooneh Bagher, PhD, assistant professor at the College of Medicine, if she would train him over the winter break. “Dr. Bagher’s research in basic science, which includes examining how blood vessels work to regulate blood flow, really interested me,” he said.

As the stars aligned, Bagher’s lab needed an additional person for their NASA project right when Tansey completed his laboratory training. So Tansey joined the team as part of his medical school rotation, where students shadow physicians or researchers at clinical or research facilities for hands-on experience.

“Right after taking Step 1 of my United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), I walked out of the classroom and into a car with the Bagher lab group, and flew to Florida for the NASA space biology mission known as RR-9,” Tansey said.

The spaceflight environment results in significant physiological changes for astronauts. Altered regulation of blood flow and other fluid pressures inside the head and eyes may be a reason behind the visual impairment that is experienced by many during and after long-duration space missions. Bagher’s team was part of a group studying these biological changes.

Ten months before Tansey joined, Bagher’s team had studied coronary and cerebral arteries of animal models flown aboard a Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station on SpaceX-12. Tansey joined when the ground-based animal models were examined as a control group. The team studied coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart, and cerebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain and central nervous system.

“When we send astronauts to space, there is a definite change to their bodies, and we wanted to find out specifically what will happen to their blood vessels in microgravity. I helped run experiments to answer this question,” Tansey said. “This research is for outer space; it’s literally the final frontier.”

All experiments had to be conducted in a 24-hour timeframe, so the four-person Texas A&M team had to continuously run experimental trials on all animals in each control group. Tansey was part of a team that managed in one day, something that would usually take months on a regular lab schedule.

“This type of nitty-gritty research, where each little step has to be properly completed, gives you more appreciation of what it takes to conduct a study,” Tansey said. “You get these results that may shape clinical practice or affect what we know about fundamental biological mechanisms.”

“I never thought I’d be a part of a project like this. Everything about space exploration is fascinating. We are making serious advancements in space travel. I don’t think there’s been this much excitement in the field since the space race era,” Tansey said. “The more advanced our travel missions are, the longer our astronauts are in space.”

The research team’s findings will be presented at the 2018 American Society of Gravitational and Space Research in Maryland. This work is part of a research project with far-reaching implications. With long-duration human exploration into deep space, NASA is moving forward in its vision to advancing scientific knowledge for the benefit of humankind.

“This was a challenging study, and Patrick’s previous experience during his clinical rotations paid off,” Bagher said. “He was just as upbeat and motivated at hour one as he was at hour 24; that’s the type of person you need to be involved in a study like this.”

“Going forward in medicine, I would like to be involved in research that impacts the nation’s space branch,” Tansey said. “I am interested in orthopedic surgery and the many residency programs that do work with NASA on projects on bone density, structure, biomechanical support, all of these things that relate to space and medicine. There are sure to be plenty of challenges on the horizon. I hope to play a role in solving them whether as a student, resident, Air Force officer or beyond.”

— Tamim Choudhury

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