After 340 days on the ISS, astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth on March 2, 2016, bringing home a world of scientific discovery. In particular, the One-Year Mission’s “Twins Study” reflects the ambitious goals of the Precision Medicine Initiative—a new national research effort that seeks to replace “one-size-fits-all” medical care with a strategy that considers individual differences in genetics, environment, and lifestyle.
NASA’s Human Research Program, in collaboration with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, is using a multi-omics approach to compare Scott with his identical twin, Mark, who remained on Earth for the duration of the mission. While Scott’s return is a triumph and major milestone, the suspense remains as researchers collect postflight biological samples and continue to analyze the samples from his year in orbit.
The Twins Study consists of 10 scientific experiments, ranging from psychological to physiological, each bolstered by the twins’ genomic similarity. By comparing the twins’ response to stress from their respective environments, scientists can identify the connections between environment and human health. The contrasting environments thus set the stage for researchers to rigorously explore how disease and health are products of our genes (nature) and our environment (nurture).
For example, one experiment seeks to answer this question as it relates to the body’s immune system. Changes in the twin’s “immunome” as they react to a seasonal flu vaccine may reveal new possibilities for individually tailored vaccinations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the 2014-2015 flu vaccine was only 23% effective. While this is in part due to a poor match with circulating virus, variability in individual response also plays a role—implying the need for a precision medicine approach that is specific to each patient.
By discovering the elements of health, the Twins Study shows us what it means to be human and strives to improve biomedical understanding for both astronaut health and personalized healthcare on Earth. “We are improving our understanding of the influence of environmental stresses, like prolonged exposure to microgravity, on the dynamics of living systems,” said Michael Roberts, deputy chief scientist for CASIS, “and this will lead to greater insight into the pattern and process of disease here on Earth.”
Omics: The Data Mining of Biomedicine
Omics is the study of how biological elements interact on a global level (e.g., genes in the genome or proteins in the proteome). The vast amount of data generated from omics studies can be analyzed with bioinformatics techniques—a combination of computer science, mathematics, statistics, and engineering.