October 10, 2017

Biomedical research working with Thomas Pesquet

 Space is a fantastic laboratory for medicine and medical research here on Earth, which is why INSERM, the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research, and CNES have been working together for more than a year  to speed the infusion of advances in health research more quickly into our everyday lives. During his six-month stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS), ESA’s French astronaut Thomas Pesquet was able to perform numerous experiments whose first results are confirming scientists’ hypotheses and in some cases surprising them.
Thomas Pesquet is presenting these discoveries on Tuesday 10 October at a one-off event organized by the French science academy in the Cupola of the Institut de France in Paris.

In space, our muscles, bones, arteries and sensory organs, and our nervous and immune systems are subjected to microgravity and acceleration conditions for which they are not designed. Humans have evolved in a way that has optimized our bodies to respond to Earth’s gravity and to live behind the protective shield of its atmosphere. Once freed from these gravity constraints and exposed to radiation and heavy elements of cosmic origin, the human body may suffer a range of specific and previously unknown ills. Likewise, our organism is forced to cope with stressful conditions, restricted movement, lack of variety in diet and disrupted sleep-awake patterns.

[Légende photo]
INSERM/Patrick Delapierre - European Astronaut Centre - European Space Agency

In response to these challenges, scientists at INSERM and CNES are striving to:

    Protect astronauts’ health, keep track of them in real time and relay data to Earth for processing and diagnosis.

    Use space as a field of investigation to better understand physiology and frequent illnesses. A number of common pathologies—like osteoporosis, disruption of circadian rhythms and sleep patterns, inner ear and balance disorders, attention and concentration deficits and ageing of arteries—are benefiting from close medical monitoring of astronauts

First post-flight results

Medical and physiological data
Keeping a check on the crew of the ISS is a daily challenge. The EveryWear system developed by the MEDES space clinic, CNES’s health subsidiary, brings a new approach using an application on a touchscreen tablet device. The astronaut wears a garment fitted with portable biomedical sensors connected via Bluetooth to a mobile terminal (a consumer tablet).
Using a tablet in this way to collect astronaut medical, physiological and personal data is a big step forward. The main advantages of EveryWear are its ability to aggregate data from different tools while at the same time making the whole process a lot easier for astronauts. It is an adaptable device able to cover a broad spectrum of parameters such as nutrition, sleep and the cardiovascular system, and to collect data for processing in a uniform manner. Here again, the ‘personal assistant’ saves a great deal of time for the crew. For example, an astronaut’s nutrition was previously monitored through a series of survey questions, whereas now these data can be sent directly.

Sleep patterns
INSERM’s 1075 research unit in Caen is working with French firm Bodycap on miniaturized activity and temperature sensors that were integrated with their associated software into Thomas Pesquet’s ‘personal assistant’ on the ISS to analyse his sleep patterns and circadian rhythms. The first results, which should be interpreted with care as the data were obtained from only one individual, are quite unexpected. They show that despite the significant effects of gravity on bodily movements, and therefore activity, the correlation between activity data and sleep-awake patterns is the same aboard the ISS as on Earth. If these results are confirmed, astronaut medical and physiological monitoring would be greatly facilitated.
As checking of physiological and environmental data is a key element of new personalized medicine, improving these devices could have numerous spin-offs. For example, these results could help to improve connected watches that use sleep trackers to gauge the quality of sleep by measuring wrist movements during the night, which are gravity-dependent.

Bone weakness
The team led by Laurence Vico, research director at INSERM’s 1059 research unit, is studying changes to bone structure brought about by spaceflight. To analyse the structure of the radius and tibia, their experiments use a high-resolution scanner developed with the support of the European Space Agency (ESA). As well as measuring bone density, this device enables non-invasive ‘virtual bone biopsies’ that give a very precise picture of bone architecture in three dimensions.
While individual data collected for Thomas Pesquet again remain confidential, results from a larger panel of 13 cosmonauts show that not only do the load-bearing leg bones not recover completely after a spaceflight, but also—and this is new—the arm bones that are not subjected to the same loads on returning to Earth gradually deteriorate.
A comparison of these results with those obtained from mice show that the cells that orchestrate bone formation and resorption (osteocytes), which usually live for several years, die prematurely in weightless conditions. A counter-measure capable of arresting this premature ageing is being tested and could be applied to patients with osteoporosis.

Cardiovascular system
Pierre Boutouyrie is conducting his research at INSERM’s 970 research unit, one of the first to have worked on the effects of microgravity and hypergravity conditions, notably on accelerated ageing of the arteries. Spaceflights offer an ideal opportunity to study this process. We know for example that arteries harden as they age, thus impeding blood flow and increasing the risk of atherosclerosis, which can lead to complications in the heart, brain and kidneys.
During Thomas Pesquet’s flight, changes induced by microgravity were studied using flexible piezo-electric sensors  connected to Thomas Pesquet’s tablet assistant. Here again, his individual data remain confidential but the first results of a two-month bedrest study conducted on 10 patients, and data published on astronauts by an international team show that the arterial system undergoes rapid and very significant changes leading to accelerated ageing. Besides astronauts, patients who stay bedridden through illness for long periods also suffer the same effects.

Researchers are currently testing dietary and physical activity countermeasures to alleviate such effects on bedridden patients.

Watch the presentation with Thomas Pesquet in the Cupola live on the French science academy website.
On 6 December 2016, the French science academy played host to more than 300 high-school pupils and their teachers for a live link-up with Thomas Pesquet aboard the ISS.
On 10 October 2017, Thomas Pesquet is back in person, in the Cupola of the Institut de France, to recount his daily research routine and present the results of the scientific experiments developed by CNES and INSERM on behalf of NASA and ESA.
This live presentation will also provide the opportunity for the French science academy to award its prizes to the first-in-class students of France’s top engineering schools, and to the winners of the national and international science and engineering Olympiads, Rogissart grantees and biology laureates who will be presenting their research advances.
To watch the live broadcast on the website on 10 October, starting at 3.00 p.m.:

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