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NASA launch includes KU Medical Center research on the female reproductive system

KU Medical Center scientists have partnered with scientists from NASA Ames Research Center in the first-ever examination of long-term space exposure on female reproductive physiology.

NASA rocket preparing to launch
NASA’s SpaceX CRS-29 is carrying research from a KU Medical Center lab designed to help scientists learn more about how space travel might affect fertility.

A SpaceX rocket launched from Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 9, 2023 with five major experiments, including one from the University of Kansas Medical Center. KU Medical Center’s investigation is conducted in tandem with NASA’s astronauts on the International Space Station, and it is part of a NASA grant examining the effects of spaceflight and microgravity on female reproductive health. The experiment builds on previous research with real-world implications.

Over the past several decades, KU Medical Center researcher Joseph Tash, Ph.D., conducted several experiments with NASA, examining various aspects of male fertility in space. In 2013, Tash and Lane Christenson, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology and an expert in female reproductive physiology, wrote the research proposal with researchers from the NASA Ames Research Center.

“This project is a compilation of a lot of hard work by many individuals to ensure that the experiment being conducted is done so in the best possible manner,” Christenson said, noting that NASA researchers April Ronca, Ph.D., and Joshua Alwood Ph.D., were co-authors of the proposal.

Spaceflight and ovarian dysfunction

The purpose of this study is to learn whether spaceflight, directly or indirectly, causes ovarian dysfunction that leads to infertility in an animal model using female mice. The next aim is to learn whether bone loss is associated with altered estrogen in bone tissue. The International Space Station, which resides in low-Earth orbit and is protected from elevated levels of radiation, is an effective environment for the study.

Dr. Lane Christenson in a lab with a researcher wearing a white coat
Lane Christenson, Ph.D., a professor in the Department
of Cell Biology and Physiology,is pictured in his lab with
Payton Nies, a KU undergraduate student who worked
on the project as part of the K-INBRE Summer
Scholars program.

Disrupted ovarian function was observed in animal models on previous missions, so part of the work will be to determine the source of the disruption and whether it was perhaps microgravity or re-entry. Following the extended exposure to microgravity, follow-up experiments will be conducted to see if mouse fertility was affected.

Multiple control groups on the ground are used for comparison. “We duplicate the conditions in space (except weightlessness),” Christenson said. Upon return to Earth, mice will be observed and mated, and researchers will evaluate the number of offspring born, birth weights and litter sex ratios.

“The grant has expanded since the original application to include behavioral studies on the offspring of the space-flown mice with the inclusion of a new young investigator, Stephanie Puukila, Ph.D., at the NASA Ames Research Center in California,” Christenson said. These experiments will engage KU Medical Center facilities to determine if spaceflight affected the next generation. 

Illustrated graphic depicting mice in space
In keeping with tradition, researchers
created a mission patch commemorating
the space flight.

As a NASA-funded study, the intent is for findings to be eventually applied to astronauts and perhaps even other travelers in space. While previous research suggests spaceflight affects fertility, this investigation is designed to improve basic understanding of female reproductive health in females and may provide foundational data on how gravity affects female reproductive function.

This launch carried supplies, equipment and research projects to the International Space Station. The crew of astronauts from the United States, Denmark and Japan will support Christenson’s research on the International Space Station, including Loral O’Hara, a NASA flight engineer and graduate of the aerospace program at KU. Other experiments on board include studies on atmospheric gravity waves formed by weather disturbances on Earth, laser communications, water filtration for recycling and recovery and the study of plant defense responses.

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