Space Exploration

An Astronaut Might Need Kidney Dialysis on the Way Home from Mars

Long term space exploration comes with many challenges. Not least is how much toilet paper to take but more worryingly is the impact on human physiology. We have not evolved in a weightless environment, we are not used to floating around for months on end nor are we able to cope with increased levels of radiation. It is likely that organs like the kidneys will become damaged but it make take time for signs to appear. Researchers are developing ways to detect organ issues in the early stages and develop ways to protect them during long duration flights. 

We have known for some years that space flight causes health problems. Reduced muscle and bone density are the more well known but since the 1970’s we have also seen a weakening of the heart, eyesight issues and kidney stone development. The main cause of the problem is thought to be increased exposure to radiation from space. It’s not just the radiation from the Sun but Galactic Cosmic Radiation from deep space also plays a part. Fortunately for us here on Earth, the magnetic field protects us and those in low Earth orbit to a degree too. Those who travel further afield; to the Moon and other planets will be far more at risk. 

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst gets a workout on the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED). Credit: NASA

To date, no-one has attempted to study what might be happening inside our organs as a result of long duration space flight, until now. A new study, published in Nature Communications, reports upon the analysis of kidney health in space flight. The study was funded by Wellcome, St Peters Trust and Kidney Research UK and was undertaken by a team of researchers from over 40 groups. 

The research team collected samples from over 40 low Earth orbit missions from humans and mice chiefly from the International Space Station. Using these samples they conducted biomolecular, physiological and anatomical assessments. Using mice, they were able to simulate Galactic Cosmic Radiation doses equivalent to a 1.5 year to 2.5 year Mars mission. 

NASA Image: ISS020E049908 – NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, Expedition 20/21 flight engineer, is pictured near the Mice Drawer System (MDS) in the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station.

Indications from the study showed that the kidney from both animal and human experienced changes. Parts of the kidney, known as tubules, are responsible for tweaking the calcium and salt balances and these showed signs of shrinkage after less than a month in space. The researchers believe though that this is more likely the result of weightlessness rather than radiation doses. The team did suggest however that further research is appropriate to see if the combination of increased doses of radiation coupled with microgravity had an increasing effect. 

Another finding of the study was the way in which salt is processed by the kidneys. It is now thought that fundamental changes to how this is handled leads to the formation of kidney stones whilst it was originally assumed to be the result solely of microgravity. 

Perhaps the most shocking finding of the study though was that anyone venturing beyond the confines fo the Earth’s protective magnetic field for 2.5 years is likely to experience permanent kidney damage and loss of function. This was demonstrated in the mice samples that had experienced a simulated Galactic Cosmic Radiation dose for that period fo time. The impact of this is quite staggering. Currently any astronaut venturing to Mars is likely to need kidney dialysis on the way back! The race is now on to find new ways to protect astronauts, and organs during long duration spaceflights. 

Source : Would astronauts’ kidneys survive a roundtrip to Mars?

Mark Thompson

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