Embry-Riddle Space Biology Research Featured in Landmark Publication by Nature

Dr. Amber Paul (right) works with Carol Mitchell, a student researcher in Paul's Omics Lab for Health and Human Performance
Dr. Amber Paul (right) works with Carol Mitchell, a student researcher in Paul's Omics Lab for Health and Human Performance who was a co-author on research published in a Nature compendium of space biology papers (Photo: Embry-Riddle/Bernard Wilchusky)

Two papers from the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University lab of Dr. Amber Paul on how spaceflight could affect the human body are included in a space biology package just published by the journal Nature, and an additional two perspective papers in the package were also co-authored by Paul.

The work for the two research papers was led by Paul, assistant professor of Aerospace Physiology and Embry-Riddle Wessel Fellow. One of the papers, published in npj Microgravity, explores the effects of the space environment on the immune system. The other, published in Nature Scientific Reports, documents female and male differences of the immune and endocrine systems of mice in response to cosmic radiation.

The papers were selected to be part of Nature’s Space Omics and Medical Atlas (SOMA) compendium, which includes analyses of bio-specimens from the crew of the three-day, high-altitude SpaceX Inspiration4 mission and from astronauts who have lived aboard the International Space Station, plus scientific findings from European Space Agency and Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency missions, including research based on simulated space conditions.

Representing the work of more than a hundred institutions from 25 countries, the package is the largest collection of data ever assembled for aerospace medicine and space biology, and it highlights that “understanding the health risks associated with space exploration is key for the preparation of long-duration lunar, and potentially Martian, missions,” according to a statement by Nature.

Dr. Peter Hoffmann, dean of the Embry-Riddle College of Arts & Sciences and professor of Physics, congratulated Paul and her researchers.

“The excellent work of our Aerospace Physiology team, featured in several high-profile papers, is an example of Embry-Riddle’s expanding leadership role in research on the effects of spaceflight and extreme environments on human physiology and performance,” Hoffmann said. “This research will not only help future astronauts to anticipate and mitigate physiological effects of radiation and weightlessness but will also have profound implications on our understanding of the immune system, aging and other biological processes right here on Earth.”

Paul, who came to Embry-Riddle after completing postdoctoral training at NASA Ames Research Center, said the SOMA resource is intended to support “the principles of open and shared science, since studying astronauts' health in space can be quite challenging. These repositories are created to expand science, knowledge and collaboration.”

For her, Paul said, “the most exciting element of the research is we have an opportunity to approach biological questions on a personalized medicine level.” A good example of this, Paul said, is research that helps to clarify differences in spaceflight health effects between males and females, which “is important to characterize for future missions.”

Paul's research focuses primarily on immune system effects.

“There are still many unknowns with exploring deep spaceflight that we will need to consider for safe travel. The discovery of how these challenges dysregulate our immune system and what can be used to counter or circumvent those effects is an open question,” Paul said. Exploration of how to prevent immune dysfunction — which can cause susceptibility to infection, unrecognized tumor antigens and even immune senescence — is applicable to health considerations here on Earth.

Marissa Burke, who earned a bachelor’s degree at Embry-Riddle in Aerospace Physiology in 2022, is a first author on one paper and a co-author on two others that were included in the Nature package. She started doing research with Paul in the fall of 2021, conducted experiments in the summer and fall of 2022, and wrote the paper on the effects of cosmic ray radiation on female and male mice that was included in the Nature package.

From Embry-Riddle, Burke went directly to a Ph.D. program at Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences. She says Paul, who is part of Burke’s external thesis committee, has been an important influence.

“The work I did with Dr. Paul was foundational in my research interests within neuroendocrine and immune systems and the skills I needed to approach my scientific questions,” Burke said.

Olivia Siu, who also earned a bachelor's degree in Aerospace Physiology at Embry-Riddle in 2022, worked on the research paper that highlights the effects of spaceflight on the immune system that was included in the Nature package. She recently earned a master’s degree in Cinematic Arts, focusing on media arts, games and health, at the University of Southern California.

“I am grateful to have worked on the package and more projects with Dr. Paul,” Siu said. “With Dr. Paul, I learned how to collaborate well and enjoyably across specialties and stages of professional development. Even in my most recent media production degree, I quickly rose in the ranks of administrative roles because I was comfortable with high-level professional teams and iterative deadlines.”

The npj Microgravity paper included in the SOMA package, co-authored by Siu, Paul and colleagues, is a review of studies on the responses of macrophages — cells that are part of the immune system, promote immunity response, protect the body against injury and infection, and assist in wound healing — to conditions of spaceflight, including cosmic radiation, altered gravity forces, social isolation and enclosed living spaces. According to the paper, many studies of crew health and model organisms have shown that spaceflight can impact nervous, musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems.

The Nature Scientific Reports paper — co-authored by Burke, Paul, Embry-Riddle student Carol Mitchell, newly appointed Embry-Riddle faculty member Dr. Cassandra Juran and colleagues — explores the difference in immune and endocrine responses to simulated cosmic radiation observed in female versus male mice. Stating that cosmic radiation can damage DNA and alter cellular function, the paper documents research showing that simulated radiation, such as would be experienced during missions to the moon and Mars, affected female mice differently than male mice. Although the study was conducted on mice, not humans, it suggests a need for the continued study of gender-specific biological responses to such radiation in order to support future space missions involving women and men.

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