WASHINGTON - A Sept. 12 signing of a memorandum of understanding marked a key milestone for NASA and the National Institutes of Health in their long partnership to advance scientific discovery. The two agencies entered into an agreement that helps American scientists use the International Space Station to answer questions about human health and diseases. The pact signals to researchers the availability of a remarkable platform on which to conduct experiments.
"The congressional designation as a national laboratory underscores the significance the American people place on the scientific potential of the space station," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin explained. "Not only will the station help in our efforts to explore the moon, Mars and beyond, its resources also can be applied for a much broader purpose - improving human health."
NASA sent Congress a plan in May describing how the U.S. segment of the International Space Station can be used as a national laboratory. The report outlines possible partnerships with other government agencies and private companies to conduct research aboard the station. The signing marks the first such agreement between NASA and another agency.
"I am extremely pleased that this collaborative effort is moving forward," NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni said. "The station provides a unique environment where researchers can explore fundamental questions about human health issues - including how the human body heals itself, fights infection or develops diseases such as cancer or osteoporosis."
Compared with the Earth-bound laboratories where more than 325,000 NIH-funded researchers conduct experiments every day, the facility at the station provides a virtually gravity-free environment where the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie human diseases can be explored. For example:
- Since the beginning of the space program, researchers have known that prolonged periods of weightlessness cause bones and muscles to deteriorate. The station provides a stable platform where scientists can study the molecular basis of these effects for the eventual benefit of people who suffer from weak, fragile bones or muscle-wasting diseases.
- When people escape the gravitational pull of Earth, their brains also need to adjust to the sensation of weightlessness. Understanding how in space parts of the brain compensate for the absence of sensory input that gravity provides on Earth holds promise for people who suffer from balance disorders.
- Other biologic systems in humans and in other organisms also are affected by microgravity. A biologic explanation for observed changes in microbe infectivity and human immunity during prolonged space travel could offer new hope to people who have difficulty fighting infections on Earth.
As part of the agreement, NIH and NASA will encourage space-related health research by exchanging information and providing technical expertise in areas of common interest. The agencies will facilitate and share each other's research and development efforts. In addition, NIH and NASA have agreed to coordinate publicity of mutually beneficial activities, publications and research results.
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