Macon, GA — When Space Shuttle Atlantis returns to Earth on Friday, Oct. 18, a Mercer University researcher will be on hand to greet them. Peter N. Uchakin, Ph.D., is leading a study of the effects space flight stress has on the immune system.
His job on Friday will be to collect blood samples from Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, Ph.D, a first-time shuttle flier when Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted-off from Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 7.
"Space flight generates stress, not only emotional stress, but physical stress," said Uchakin. "Launch and landing accelerations, microgravity and psychological factors all play a role in producing stress on the body. Each of these factors can affect the immune systems of crewmembers and have a negative impact on their well-being."
The study is an international collaboration between Mercer University, NASA and the Institute for Biomedical Problems, based in Moscow.
In their investigation, the researchers are examining cell cultures from blood and urine samples collected from Dr. Yurchikhin before and after his trip to the International Space Station. "We analyze the distribution of immunocompetent cells in whole blood, which is a type of white blood cell necessary for immune functions. We also are studying the functional state of these cells by measuring their ability to secrete immunoactive proteins called cytokines," said Uchakin.
Through the study, they also hope to determine if stress affects the sensitivity of immunocompetent cells to corticosteroids, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland that can suppress immune functions.
By conducting the tests on spacecraft crewmembers who undergo extreme physical and emotional stress during space flight, the researchers have unique opportunities to study effects of unusual and unfamiliar stress factors on humans and investigate the ability of the human body to adapt to these factors.
Mercer's first space flight research took place in September 2000 when lead co-investigator Boris Morukov, M.D., Ph.D., was a crew member aboard Atlantis. In addition to his work with Mercer researchers, the Russian cosmonaut carried a Mercer School of Medicine patch with him to the International Space Station.
Uchakin has presented preliminary findings to cosmonauts who participated in this study earlier at Johnson Space Center, but expects his work to continue for several years. The end result, he hopes, will be more answers to the questions we have about stress and its impact on the human body.