While NASA Astronaut Kate Rubins was onboard the ISS, she operated hundreds of experiments, ventured outside the space station for two spacewalks, and welcomed three cargo spacecraft delivering tons of supplies. She also had the opportunity to speak with Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, live from the ISS during a downlink last October.
“I actually applied to become an astronaut while procrastinating a little bit on writing an R01 grant (NIH research program grant) application,” Rubins told Collins during the downlink. Selected by NASA in 2009, Rubins has a Ph.D. in cancer biology from Stanford University Medical School.
Rubins and Collins discussed utilizing the unique environment of space to study diseases that affect people on Earth. NIH, NASA, and CASIS have long-standing collaborations aimed at investigating human health in the space environment. Microgravity and radiation have profound effects on cells, tissues, organs, and whole-system biology that can advance our understanding of aging, cancer, and other medical conditions. Toward this end, NIH has sponsored several investigations onboard the ISS National Lab in recent years, and more collaborations are underway—including a recent funding opportunity for tissue chips in space that have promise to advance human health on Earth.
In addition to discussing general biomedical research in microgravity, Rubins and Collins also talked about DNA, the hereditary material found in every living cell. Fourteen years ago, Collins led the Human Genome Project as it completed its historic mapping of the entire human genome sequence. At the time of the downlink, Rubins had recently become the first person to sequence DNA in space—an achievement Collins also highlighted after the downlink, in his NIH Director’s Blog about 2016 research.
The DNA sequencing effort was both an experiment and a technology demonstration, Rubins said. It was uncertain whether DNA sequencing would work in space because fluids behave differently in microgravity, and any bubbles in the system could be problematic. However, Rubins was able to show that DNA sequencing in space could successfully be done using a hand-held, off-the-shelf device called MinION. The MinION sequencer and other molecular biology facilities onboard the space station allow for in situ analysis of samples rather than having to return samples to Earth.
With recent advances in systems biology, high throughput analytics, cutting-edge technologies, and access to a well-equipped orbiting laboratory, this is an exciting time for researchers. Collins said, “If you have a passion to make a discovery, to make a difference in the world, to add to the knowledge of the universe, science is a great place to be right now.”