Research That's Out of This World
Even the sky is not the limit for two UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS) researchers. Nancy Hayes, PhD, and her husband Richard Nowakowski, PhD, designed an experiment unlike most others: part of it was conducted in outer space.
Five years ago, the pair - both faculty members in the Department of Neuroscience and Cell Biology at RWJMS - answered a call put out by NASA and the National Institutes of Health for neurological experiments to be done on a future Neurolab mission. Their proposal was one of 26 chosen from the 200 plus received.
The neuroscientists are testing the effects of microgravity - which is one-thousandth the strength of the earth's - on cell development. They began by placing 18 pregnant mice aboard the space shuttle Columbia. During the 16-day Neurolab mission, astronauts, trained by the couple, injected the mother mice with two different "marker" substances. Each substance was absorbed by the fetuses' brains at a particular stage of cell reproduction. The mice were then euthanized and the tissue preserved.
Meantime, back on earth, Hayes conducted the same experiment on a control group of mice, in a research lab she set up at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. She and Nowakowski were also on hand to talk the crew through the experiment. The couple began studying the tissue samples this summer and will continue to do so for several years.
"We want to see whether cells divide in the same fashion in space as they do on earth," Hayes says. "We're looking at how rapidly they divide and how many cells one cell will make." This information is essential, Hayes says, if man is to travel in space for extended periods of time. Since cells need to divide in order for things to grow. "On a very long space trip, for example to Mars," she explains, "you would need to grow food."
There are medical applications as well. "In adults, the cells of the skin and intestines replace themselves very rapidly," she explains. "If you get a cut, your body manufactures new skin cells and the cut heals. If cells reproduce slower in space, as we think they do, a small cut could take a very long time to heal. Chances are, during a space mission that lasts years, someone will eventually get injured."
But their study will benefit people on earth as well: It may lead to a better understanding of fetal alcohol syndrome, the effects of lead poisoning and other substances that compromise the developing brain, as well as osteoporosis, wound healing and immune system functioning.
Nowakowski, who is allergic to mice, did most of the post-flight work on the day of landing. He says he would have loved to go along on the flight, just for the ride, even though he's prone to motion sickness. Hayes, however, says she's "too old and too much of a coward."
Fall 1998 Table of Contents