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Mousetronauts to help health studies

Artwork of mouse on a satellite

Sixteen mice are serving aboard space shuttle Discovery during its current mission. They're being used in immune system studies. (Note: this artwork does not represent the actual experiment.)

WHEN SPACE SHUTTLE DISCOVERY roared into orbit for its final mission on February 24, it took with it 16 mice, which are playing an important role in immune system research.

Research has shown that the immune system is compromised during and after spaceflight.

Immunosuppression in space and increased susceptibility to pathogens is not only an obstacle to long-term human space travel…understanding it may also lead to effective preventive measures or treatments for humans on Earth.

Animal Enclosure Module

The Animal Enclosure Module (AEM) is a self-contained rodent habitat that provides its occupants with living space, food, water, ventilation, and lighting.

“We believe a combination of stresses during spaceflight affect the ability of the body to respond to respiratory viral pathogens like those that cause cold and flu even after you’re back on Earth,” said Roberto Garofalo, Principal Investigator of the Mouse Immunology-2 (MI2) experiment and a professor in the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston.

The 16 mice will be studied in order to better understand why the body’s mechanisms to fight off infection are weakened. After return to Earth they will be exposed to a common virus called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

RSV is a respiratory virus that infects the lungs and breathing passages. It is the leading cause of lower respiratory tract illness in infants and children worldwide and is more often being recognised as an important cause of respiratory illness in older adults.

Most people who are otherwise healthy recover from an RSV infection in a couple weeks. But young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, can have severe symptoms that require hospitalisation and treatment.

The goal of the MI2 experiment is to discover what triggers and leads to an increased susceptibility to an infection. These findings can be used to help treat and prevent future astronauts from getting sick, as well as protect people with more vulnerable immune systems here on Earth.

STS-133 is the 25th flight of the unique Animal Enclosure Module (AEM) hardware, which was designed to protect animals from the space environment, provide them with plenty of food and water, keep them healthy, and bring them safely back to Earth. The hardware was developed by NASA Ames Research Centre.

More information: Animal Enclose Module

Adapted from information issued by NASA Space Biosciences. Images courtesy NASA and NASA Space Biosciences.

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