Slices of sutured Human skin will be among the special packages that astronauts aboard International Space Station unpack when their next cargo shipment reaches their home above the clouds this month. A macabre postal package, yes, but one that will benefit future astronauts who are likely to spend years living off Earth.
On the ISS, the average crew member spends six months aboard the station, but with NASA’s planned mission to put humans on the moon on a semi-permanent basis and SpaceX’s ultimate goal of establishing a Mars Citythe time is near when humans will spend much longer distances in space.
Extra time in space means more opportunities for accidents to happen – including damage to the astronauts themselves. That is why biomedical researchers Monica Monici at the University of Florence, Italy, and her team sends up Suture in space experiment for astronauts at the ISS to test how flesh wounds heal in microgravity. Ultimately, researchers want to know how blood vessels and sewn-together skin seal and heal in a different gravitational environment.
The experiment is set to be launched sometime next week – at the time of writing, the cargo launch will take place as soon as June 10 with the help of a SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule.
(If you are bloody, continue reading with caution.)
Why it matters – Here’s what we know: Microgravity has strange effects on the human body – including our ability to heal. On Earth, gravity plays an important role in how our bodies reconnect after an injury. Remove gravity, or change it, and that process goes awry.
“Wound closure is delayed under microgravity conditions,” says Monici. She made the remarks during a NASA press conference held on Thursday, June 2.
“During long-term space exploration missions, the risks of damage from accidents [increase] and unexpected, imaginary surgeries can increase, she says.
If people are too far from the earth (or too seriously injured) to travel home for medical care, they must be treated in space. Especially if they have a cut or wound that causes them to bleed profusely.
How gravity heals
Our planet’s gravity helps the human body repair small cuts and larger spots via complex processes that take place at the cell and tissue level, as researchers from Suture in Space overview on their mission page.
“It is a complex and dynamic process whose machinery is not fully known despite having been studied in depth on earth,” they say.
Faults in the healing process can be a problem – as can changes in the environment.
“Interruptions, failures or changes in one or more phases of the repair process can lead to the formation of non-healing chronic wounds or fibrotic scars,” the researchers write.
In other words, if the healing process does not go well, a person may be left with a continuous open wound, which is prone to infection, or with scarring that causes pain, numbness or other problems.
How they did it – To learn about “completely unknown“The nature of wound healing in microgravity, researchers first collected four samples of human skin and four samples of human blood vessels during biopsy operations at Careggi University Hospital in Florence, Italy.
Then they cut the samples, patched them with stitches and placed them in a controlled experimental unit, ready for launch into space.
The Suture in Space experiment is also known during a longer moniker: wound healing and sutures under relief conditions. Over a four-week period, the astronauts will divide the eight sutured samples into two rounds:
Two blood vessels and two discs of skin are incubated for only four days and then placed in cold storage to stop their healing.
The other samples may be incubated for a longer period of time, approximately nine days, and then placed in a freezer.
This approach will give researchers an insight into how wounds seal in space during two distinct phases of the healing process.
What’s next – Suture in Space will be launched on a SpaceX Dragon capsule no earlier than Friday, June 10 at 10:45 Eastern. The cargo ship will reach the ISS flying on top of a Falcon 9 rocket, which will take off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Suture in Space will fly on the kite with four other experiments. A project, called GIVE, will attach to the ISS itself and scan our planet’s land for traveling sand particles. Students at Stanford send up their biopolymer study about how coprotein can be useful for making lunar building blocks. Immunosenescence will explore how tired immune cells can be revived. To learn about plant and food production outside the earth, DynaMoS the mission will study soil microbes in space.
Once aboard the ISS, the Suture in Space specimens will remain in orbit for about a month before being returned to Earth aboard a supply shuttle. When the samples are back on earth, Monici’s team can take a closer look at how they did. Her team will study the scar structure, the expression of wound healing genes and look for signs of possible necrosis. Necrosis is what happens when your tissue begins to die due to injury, disease or lack of blood supply – unfortunate if you are in space with nowhere to go.
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