As a VA researcher and former NASA astronaut, I feel fortunate to have experienced the best of both scientific worlds: molecular and cellular biology, and spaceflight. Today, as Endeavour circles the Earth with two VA Research studies aboard, it seems like an especially good time to talk about the numerous benefits gained from the VA-NASA partnership.
First, I’m sure many of you may be surprised to learn that VA has sent research projects into space! In fact, VA has had a very strong presence in the NASA space shuttle program. VA research has flown payloads related to bone growth and also immune function, and on the last 10 shuttles, has sent up studies regarding vaccine targets. The two projects aboard the Endeavour are the last in a series working toward vaccines for two common infections: salmonella, and also an antibiotic-resistant form of golden staph, the most common bacterial agent in infections among deployed troops.
Following Endeavour’s mission, VA research will fly another payload on the last journey of Atlantis (now scheduled for June). Additionally, the Durham VA medical center houses a lead laboratory for the International Space Station Pathfinder program.
I’m sure you can imagine the high degree of teamwork needed to plan, coordinate, and send research into space! For every payload experiment there are up to 30 people supporting the principal investigator and his or her studies. Those people help coordinate the activities between the two agencies, plan and implement the integration of the experiment onto the spaceship and onto International Space Station, and, of course, assist the astronauts who conduct the experiments.
As someone who has worked with both VA and NASA professionals for many years, I can tell you from personal experience, it is truly an impressive operation. My eyewitness account to this collaboration began in 1983 when I had the great honor to be selected as a member of the STS-40 Spacelab Life Sciences crew – the very first Spacelab mission dedicated to biomedical science studies. At that time, I was investigating the mechanism of how bone cells grow and trying to find the reason for spaceflight osteoporosis. Subsequent studies of mine, which flew on five NASA missions, led to findings that provided the basis for what I’m working on today: finding ways for rapid fracture healing after traumatic injury.
Additionally, my immunological studies here at the San Francisco VA medical center have flown into space on both the shuttle and on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. These projects, in turn, paved the way for a grant I received to examine the early T-cell response to infection in aging. This knowledge will enable us to modulate the immune system and thereby help the elderly fight infection.
Simply put: My work, the findings from these studies that have helped improved health care for our Veterans, would not have been possible without the VA-NASA partnership.
Millie Hughes-Fulford, PhD, is a Principal Investigator at both UCSF and VAMCSF and is the director of the Hughes-Fulford Laboratory located at the VASFMC. She is an Adjunct Professor at the University of California Medical Center at San Francisco. Additionally, Dr. Hughes-Fulford serves as Scientific Advisor to the Under Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs.