Breaking Research on Space Travel's Effects on Immune System Presented at The 56th Annual Meeting of The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immun

Press Release From: American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology
Posted: Monday, March 6, 2000

Three new research studies presented today at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) Annual Meeting offer the latest information on the effects of space travel on the human immune system, which may some day offer new treatments for allergic and immunologic diseases here on Earth.

Three leading scientists have stepped away from conventional thinking to find answers about how the immune system changes during space travel. Desmond Lugg, M.D., FAFOM, Director of Polar Medicine for the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition in Tasmania spoke on his 25 years of research on the effects of isolation and containment on T-cells in subjects during the long 10-month Antarctic winter. This isolation and lack of sunlight is considered to be an earth-bound equivalent of space travel. Lugg's research is based on the fact that when humans are literally cut off from the world, whether in space or the Antarctic, the body's T-lymphocyte system is weakened, predisposing them to infection with both common and latent viruses. One such virus is the Epstein-Barr virus, which has been associated with malignancies in immunosuppressed patients.

Gerald Sonnenfeld, Ph.D., Vice-Dean and Chair of Microbiology and Immunology at the Morehouse University School of Medicine in Atlanta, shared his insight on his numerous studies on the effects of space travel on human and animal immunity. His research has found alterations in T-lymphocyte changes in small animals during space travel. Sonnenfeld has further explored these bodily changes in immunity studies of astronauts and Russian cosmonauts.

David F. Dinges, Ph.D., Head of the Unit for Experimental Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia, addressed the effects of sleep deprivation on human immune function, another acknowledged equivalent model of the effects of space travel. His studies of subjects deprived of sleep in special isolation chambers at the University of Pennsylvania have found that as the human body is deprived of sleep, the body's ability to fight off disease is lessened. An increased susceptibility to infection, combined with the small living space within a space station, could also facilitate the rapid spread of infections between crew members. Dinges' research has aimed to find possible prevention and control measures to lessen the risk of infectious diseases among astronauts, which could seriously comprise individual health and the entire space mission. The Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration have been major supporters of his research due to its implications for military and commercial airline pilots and the safety of passengers.

The research offered by these three scientists was spearheaded through the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, which aims to find countermeasures useful for astronauts experiencing allergies, hypersensitivity conditions and immunodeficiencies that might occur on a future highly stressful voyage to Mars. Evidence currently indicates that space flight may make astronauts more prone to infection by microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi, and possibly reactivate viruses already present in the body. Simply, the absence of gravity, stress, loss of sleep and changes in various bodily functions due to space travel may lessen the body's ability to defend itself against disease, including allergic and immunologic conditions.

Besides their application for astronauts, new medications or treatments created for space travel conditions could also potentially aid patients with allergic and immunologic disorders on Earth, said William T. Shearer, M.D., Ph.D., FAAAAI, Professor of Pediatrics and Microbiology and Immunology at Baylor College of Medicine and Chief of Allergy and Immunology Service at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston.

``It has been common knowledge that people who feel run-down because of being overworked or an emotional crisis often suffer from an increase in symptoms of infection or bad allergies,'' Shearer said. ``This area of medicine has been overlooked in scientific circles because of the lack of ability to quantitatively measure the connections between the nervous system and the immune system. And the conditions of space travel as reflected in an earth-bound equivalent model certainly are associated with alterations in immune responses that are likely to produce allergic and immunologic diseases. These studies may provide valuable clues for the diseases that people on Earth endure.''

These studies were presented at the 56th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology is the largest professional medical specialty organization in the United States representing allergists, asthma specialists, clinical immunologists, allied health professionals and others with a special interest in the research and treatment of allergic disease. Allergy/immunology specialists are pediatric or internal medicine physicians who have elected an additional two years of training to become specialized in the treatment of asthma, allergy and immunologic disease. Established in 1943, the Academy has more than 6,000 members in the U.S., Canada and 60 other countries. The Academy serves as an advocate to the public by providing educational information through its toll-free line at 800-822-2762 and its Web site at

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