The stars aligned for Jessica Braun during a trip to Greece earlier this year.
While at the Committee on Space Research conference in July, the Brock PhD student in Kinesiology had a chance encounter that set the wheels in motion for NASA to send the University a second batch of tissue samples for research on astronauts’ health in space.
Braun, a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Doctoral Award recipient, attended a talk by a researcher who had investigated the effects of an antioxidant treatment for astronauts on the International Space Station.
The topic was close to Braun’s heart. She had just finished research showing that oxidative stress could cause calcium not to be regulated properly in muscles. Oxidative stress occurs when free radicals – molecules involved in disease – are out of balance with antioxidants, substances that can prevent or slow damage to cells caused by free radicals.
In a chat with the researcher afterward, Braun found out NASA would be advertising the muscle samples from this study soon after the conference. She couldn’t wait to share the news with her supervisor, Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Val Fajardo.
“I immediately texted Dr. Fajardo and told him to e-mail NASA before they even posted the opportunity,” says Braun. “I feel extra excited about these samples because of my personal connection to them and being able to get my foot in the door with these samples.”
Fajardo, Canada Research Chair in Tissue Re-modelling and Plasticity throughout the Lifespan, followed up with NASA, getting “first dibs” on the material, which arrived at Brock last month.
This follows a first round of tissue samples NASA sent Fajardo and his team two years ago to examine the cellular mechanisms behind muscle and bone loss in astronauts.
“The process of getting these samples involves a review,” says Fajardo. “The reviewing board at NASA unanimously decided that we should receive these samples based on our previous success with the last round of samples.”
From the research on this first batch, Braun published a study in May finding that a calcium pump known as ‘SERCA,’ which regulates calcium levels in muscle, operated less effectively in the space mice muscles compared to their Earth counterparts.
Calcium ions play an important role in cells’ physiology and biochemistry, especially in the process of muscle contraction. SERCA’s inability to regulate calcium levels can result in reduced muscle function and cell damage.
Together, Braun and Fajardo suspect that SERCA’s inability to regulate calcium levels in space is due to an increase in oxidative stress, which can stop the SERCA pumps from working properly.
With this latest batch of samples, Braun will be able to follow up on her previous research where she will determine whether antioxidant treatment can improve SERCA function and calcium regulation and ultimately stop muscle wasting and weakness, both in astronauts and older adults on Earth.
In addition to Braun’s work, PhD student Briana Hockey will also be using the new samples to investigate the effects of antioxidant treatment on another protein called glycogen synthase kinase 3.
This is to follow up on Ryan Baranowski’s (MSc ’22) recent work with the first batch of samples awarded to Fajardo’s lab, who first characterized the effects of spaceflight on this protein.
Fajardo says his team’s studies of muscle loss in space mice can be expanded beyond astronaut health.
“This space model is widely considered to be an accelerated aging model,” says Fajardo. “You can study aging more efficiently because it takes a shorter amount of time to age. Humans and other research models on space tend to ‘age’ at an accelerated rate, so slowing this down in space may help us down here on Earth.
“If you can figure out ways to stop or slow down muscle loss in space, why not apply that here on Earth for aging or other diseases?”
The research is being supported by funds from the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences and a VPR Discretionary fund.