Sep 14

Key Research Areas for Advancing Innovation Between UK Space and Life Science Sectors

In recent years, collaboration between the UK health and life science sector and the UK space sector has continued to grow. Multiple experiments and studies on human health, such as cancer research, and life sciences, such as the effects of microgravity on biological organisms, have already been conducted using space platforms. As cross-sector collaboration increases, new opportunities are emerging for furthering health and life science research alongside growing UK-based space infrastructure. Identified in a special report by the UK Space Life and Biomedical Sciences Association (UK Space LABS) in 2021, four research areas were noted as key to fostering further cross-sector innovation. The information from studies highlighted within this article are referenced from the aforementioned UK Space LABS report. Whether through small satellites (e.g., CubeSats) or dedicated space station laboratories, these research focuses, described below, each provide opportunities to advance health and life science research not only for future UK space exploration, but for on-Earth healthcare and human well-being.

Biological Life Science

The space environment, by nature, is both complex and unique. As governments and commercial entities announce plans to colonise space and nearby celestial bodies, such as the Moon or Mars, it is essential for health and life science researchers to understand the effects the space environment has on biological organisms. Using the unique microgravity and radiation environment found in space, impacted research areas include innovative research on infection resistance, stem cells, tissue and organ repair, medication administration, and microbiology, among others. 

The UK already possesses a leading expertise in certain biological fields, such as radiobiology, pharmaceutical research, and plant biology. Current studies, such as those on tissue engineering, have been conducted in space to research how cells behave in unique microgravity conditions and to discern the possibility of manufacturing lab-grown tissues and organs. In comparison, new technologies, such as organ-on-a-chip – small chips containing living human cells (Fig. 1) – have also been tested to observe the effects of microgravity and radiation on living cells and innovate research on personalized medicine, drug delivery, and disease without the need for human subjects. Future studies would be able to capitalize on pre-established research to discover new applications and countermeasures for advanced human spaceflight.

Fig. 1: Human ‘organ-on-a-chip’ technology is able to study the effects of extreme environments and harmful conditions on human tissue without the use of human or animal subjects. Image Credit: Harvard University.

Additionally, the space environment is uniquely suited for the development of in-space plant ecosystems. As humans travel further into space, diverse ecosystems of plant growth, including bacteria and microorganisms, are essential for establishing independent and sustainable spaceflight practices and settlements. Using space platforms, researchers are able to test how plants, docile bacteria, and certain microorganisms can improve air quality, provide food for humans, help protect against certain radiation, and how they can grow and thrive in harsh environments. 

Conducting biological life science research in space also has implications on Earth systems. Studies on microgravity have already supported innovative research on drug administration, and organ-on-a-chip technologies have decreased the need for human and animal test subjects in Earth-based studies. Other global issues, such as advancing precision medicine and improving the ability for species to live in harsh environments, can be improved from biological space research. Professor Charles Cockell of the University of Edinburgh noted the importance of cross-sector and multi-discipline research for biological life science as it places the UK “at the forefront of space life sciences with benefits to long term space exploration and…terrestrial life sciences challenges”.

Psychology & Neuroscience

The importance of psychological and neurological research has grown as capacity for human spaceflight has increased. Research in this area encompasses such topics as human psychology, sociology, isolation, confinement, and stress, as well as child development, the effects of extreme environments, and architecture design. Understanding these topics and their applications can have positive impacts on the safety, health, and wellbeing of humans both in space and on Earth. 

For advancing psychological and neurological research for space, UK professionals have already made important contributions. These contributions have stemmed primarily from partnerships and research developments with the European Space Agency and other international space organisations. Such research has analysed cognitive reactions to the space environment, provided support to monitor astronaut health, cognition, and motor skill performance, and helped in the development of countermeasures to psychological disorders stemming from isolation, confinement, and stress. 

While an expert capability for space psychology research exists in the UK, advanced innovation of psychology and neuroscience studies is not widely accessible outside of academic and research institutions. Increasing the accessibility of psychological and neurological research will help to further understanding of how humans react to the space environment. This includes improving the selection process of astronauts and enhancing pre-mission training and post-mission rehabilitation, allowing for easier introduction and return from a spaceflight environment. Additionally, in-mission countermeasures and support can be better applied to suit individual astronaut needs and architecture for space habitats can be redesigned to provide cognitive stimulation for astronaut crews. The benefits of further psychological research would improve the safety and wellbeing of not only astronauts, but non-agency funded space crews such as commercial space travelers. 

Advancing psychological and neurological research in space also has numerous benefits to terrestrial healthcare. Studies for monitoring astronaut health can be used to support the health and wellbeing of not only ground control staff for space missions, but of healthcare professionals in high-stress environments. Research for in-flight psychological support and post-flight astronaut rehabilitation can support the wellbeing and rehabilitation for hospital patients through transferrable countermeasures for psychological disorders stemming from surgery, trauma, or isolation. Further, studies on the effects of isolation, confinement, and extreme environments can be applied to support individuals and communities on Earth experiencing such conditions, as seen through the COVID-19 pandemic and recent climate related events.

Biomedical & Clinical Practices

Depending on the duration, distance, and objectives of a given space mission, there are various dangers that can pose risks to human health. The approach to space medicine, therefore, needs to be holistic, diverse, and multidisciplinary in order to protect astronauts and space crews from medical and clinical hazards. Medical research encompasses such topics as in-person and virtual medical support from medically trained crew and the use of medical equipment in space. Clinical research encompasses such topics as exercise, surgery, trauma, hygiene, and countermeasures to specific medical issues such as muscle ageing or musculoskeletal deconditioning. Using space platforms for key research would support medical practices to minimise risks to human health and wellbeing. 

Medical care in space, such as on the International Space Station, is very limited. The medical kit on board the ISS contains a first aid kit and general equipment such as a defibrillator and an ultrasound. ISS astronauts have a small selection of medication and the means to address minor medical issues. However, if a major medical emergency were to occur, current in-flight medical measures would be ill-equipped to address the situation. The advanced training that astronauts receive pre-flight generally protects them from many critical medical issues. But with the dawn of commercial space tourism, space travelers who lack rigorous astronaut training could be susceptible to more serious and difficult conditions. In order to achieve long duration spaceflight, deep space travel, or settlements on other celestial bodies, space medical practices and procedures need to advance considerably in order to address a myriad of potential medical conditions.

Fig. 2: Astronauts aboard the ISS can use ultrasound devices to monitor eyes, bones, muscles, and organs, but are not equipped to deal with any major medical conditions or emergencies. Image Credit: NASA.

By conducting medical and clinical research in space, these studies provide opportunities to develop new practices and understanding of human physiology and medical countermeasures for on-Earth populations. Medication and pharmaceutical research under microgravity conditions can benefit terrestrial drug manufacturing, and telemedicine technology – providing virtual medical assistance to astronauts from medical professionals on Earth – can be applied to make quality medical care available to populations in remote regions. Professor Maria Stokes of the University of Southampton identifies medical and clinical space research as a precursor to help guide “strategies for the general population to reduce the risk of chronic diseases…and inform rehabilitative processes”, possible only through continued cross-sector and multidisciplinary collaboration.

Engineering & Data Science

Health and life science research has regularly driven the direction of engineering and data science infrastructure over recent years. Due to the hazards of space, life support, medical, and habitat systems are dependent upon reliable technology in order to support the health of astronauts and other living organisms. Innovations in engineering, manufacturing, and robotics aim to help develop sustainable life support systems and habitats through the use of new materials and new designs. The adoption of data technology supports such engineering innovation, and that of medical technologies, by transforming how scientific data is processed, analysed, and used for health and life science benefit. 

The UK already holds great expertise and capability in the areas of engineering and data science and has contributed to many recent advancements. These advancements include developing new human respiratory life support systems, key medical and assistive technologies such as predictive modelling and wearable sensors, and new systems such as 3D printing and patient-specific modelling. However, studies into many of these innovations lack proper funding and accessibility, thereby limiting the current application of engineering and data-driven research. Further encouraging cross-sector collaboration between space and life sciences would help to increase funding, develop new mechanisms for sharing practices, and improve high-level visibility with necessary governmental and spacefaring bodies.

Fig. 3: Innovative life support systems are the result of joint space and life science research, such as the algae-based design constructed by SAGA Space Architects. Image Credit: SAGA Space Architects.

In relation to the terrestrial benefits of space engineering and data science research, there are many potential applications stemming from cross-disciplinary collaboration. Increased research in engineering, manufacturing, and robotics can improve systems technologies for weather monitoring, climate modeling, precision agriculture, and robotic surgery in Earth-based healthcare environments. Additionally, the support of data science and advanced data technologies, such as artificial intelligence, can help develop public health monitoring practices, telemedicine channels, digital twins, specialized patient-centred healthcare, and improved measures for disaster relief. 

The continued relationship between conducting health and life sciences research on space platforms could have a synergistic benefit across the UK to both scientific and societal degrees. While the UK has pre-established partnerships with significant space domains, such as the European Space Agency, and a credible capability for technological, scientific, and medical advancement, the UK has yet to establish a permanent relationship between space and life sciences research and a sustainable infrastructure for independent access to space. While the UK is on the right path to achieving a mutual benefit for both sectors, it must develop a means to bridge the gap between its capability for research and its accessibility for practical application.

References

  1. Cockell C., 2021. Bio-based Manufacturing in Space. [online] Available at: <https://www.ed.ac.uk/biology/synthsys/our-research/bio-based-manufacturing-in-space>
  2. Ingber D., 2021. Human Organs-on-Chips. [online] Available at: <https://wyss.harvard.edu/technology/human-organs-on-chips/>
  3. Roxby P., 2016. How to deal with a medical emergency on the Space Station. [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.com/news/health-35254508>
  4. SAGA Space Architects, 2021. The Lunark Habitat. [online] Available at: <https://saga.dk/projects/lunark/habitat>
  5. Sherriff A. and Favier J., 2016. Modern Psychology for Space Exploration. [pdf] Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320716681_MODERN_PSYCHOLOGY_FOR_SPACE_EXPLORATION>
  6. UK Space Life and Biomedical Science Association, 2021. Why Space? The Opportunity for Health and Life Science Innovation. [pdf] Available at: <http://www.ukspacelabs.co.uk/documents/space-life-science-paper.pdf>

– Evan Cook

About the Author:

Evan is an award-winning author, playwright, and filmmaker, currently working as a content writer and journalist at Design & Data in Cologne, Germany. He holds a master’s degree in space science from the International Space University, a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Surrey, and a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and creative writing from the University of South Carolina – Aiken.

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