Click the arrow to watch the European Space Agency video showing ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter performing the immune cells experiment.
The European Space Agency posted on February 4 an article about International Space Station research that may have located the human immunity gene.
Ever since the first humans ventured into space we have known that astronauts can suffer from common infections that would be quickly dealt with by healthy people on Earth. Until now, it was not clear what was blocking astronauts’ immune systems from working normally.
In 2006, ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter performed an experiment on the International Space Station using ESA’s Kubik space incubator. A batch of human immune cells was allowed to float in microgravity while another was held in a centrifuge to simulate gravity. The cells were preserved for analysis back on Earth.
The cells that experienced simulated gravity as if on Earth were found to be in good health compared to their weightless equivalents.
By comparing the samples, investigators saw what was stopping the immune cells from working properly. A specific transmitter in the immune cells, called the Rel/NF-κB pathway, stops working in weightlessness ...
This research could help to tackle two types of disease. Stopping genes that activate our immune system would help to relieve people suffering from autoimmune diseases such as arthritis. The pharmaceutical industry could find the genes that need be active to fight specific illnesses and market tailored antibodies.
Ryan Whitman of Geek.com offered this insight into the discovery:
It comes down to an important cellular signaling pathway active in human cells called Rel/NF-κB. Of particular interest here is the way it helps regulate immune function. NF-κB is a protein complex that acts as a transcription factor in B and T-cells. What this means, is that when the cell gets the correct external stimulation, it activates a cascade that ends with NF-κB entering the nucleus and flipping on genes that control maturation, activation, and proliferation of these immune cells.
Without gravity, the Rel/NF-κB pathway doesn’t work, and it’s one of the most important activation pathways in the immune system. In the absence of important regulation molecules like NF-κB acting on the genes, immune cells are at a disadvantage in the event of infection. This is important to space travel, sure, but a better understanding of the Rel/NF-κB transcription pathway could lead to improved treatments for infections, autoimmune disease, and inflammatory disorders here on Earth. And it’s another example of space research improving our lives.
I also wanted to note that it took nearly seven years for the results to be published. For those who are impatient for the ISS to "show results," this is an example of how long the scientific peer review process can be before results can be verified and released.