Jeanne Becker: ‘Space experiments may lead to Salmonella vaccine’

Experiments aboard the International Space Station could lead to vaccines to prevent deadly bacterial infections here on Earth.

Jeanne Becker: We all evolved in a one-G environment, one-gravity environment. When you take that away, amazing things happen.

That’s Jeanne Becker of Astrogenetix, Inc. She’s a medical researcher and an expert on the impact of reduced gravity on human health. Becker is a collaborator on studies being conducted now on NASA’s International Space Station.

Jeanne Becker: The research that is being done there is not just for the astronauts.

She said scientists on the space station have been looking at harmful bacteria like Salmonella and even more deadly methicillin-resistant Staph – also known as MRSA. Becker said that, in space, bacteria alter their gene expression, which increases the bacteria’s virulence – its ability to cause disease.

Jeanne Becker: We saw that this change happened, and we asked the question, if the cause of the virulence can be uncovered at a genetic level, can we use that information to create a vaccine?

The answer appears to be yes. Becker said early research with Salmonella in space has led to possible clinical trials in 2009 for a vaccine. She has similar hopes for finding a vaccine for MRSA bacteria.

Jeanne Becker: We’re trying to understand if we can use space to create new ways of developing vaccines as well as other kinds of therapeutics.

Jeanne Becker says the laboratory on the International Space Station, or ISS, has a bright future.

Jeanne Becker: First of all, what a lot of people don’t understand, or maybe it isn’t overtly apparent, is that the laboratory conditions present in ISS don’t exist anywhere else, period. It’s the only laboratory of its kind where you have a constant lack of gravity to allow you to make these novel findings. Cells, when you take them up there, change tremendously – they look different, they function differently.

Not only cells change – humans change, too.

Jeanne Becker: And humans adapt. Their physiology changes so that you get fluid shifts, you get changes in bone and muscle as a response of the decreased loading. A myriad of effects occur on station that just don’t happen anywhere else. People, in order to do experiments up there, scientists will conduct studies in what’s called ‘analog situations’ that might replicate some of the effects of reduced gravity. But the only way to get true reduced microgravity sustained is in the laboratory conditions of ISS. So it’s an amazing resource.

Our thanks to Jeanne Becker.
Jeanne Becker helps conduct space-based medical research, including the search for new vaccines with a team of scientists led by Dr. Timothy Hammond of Duke University. This work is being conducted as a Pathfinder mission, to demonstrate research and development opportunities on the International Space Station. Astrogenetix, Inc. is the industry sponsor for the work. Becker also serves as Chief Scientist, Vice President, and Institute Associate Director of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, which supports research into solutions to health concerns facing astronauts on long missions and whose research also benefits people on Earth.

Jorge Salazar