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Why Canada Conducts Science on the International Space Station
Canada's participation in the International Space Station (ISS) enables Canadian scientists to conduct research for the benefit of Canadians. Canada has demonstrated a unique ability to carry out ground-breaking research in the Station's labs, and helped to advance our understanding of human presence in space.
During space missions, astronauts are subjected to the adverse effects of living in weightlessness, increased exposure to radiation and the general hardships of living in an isolated, confined and extreme environment. Many astronauts report feeling nauseous, dizzy and disoriented within minutes of arriving in space as the body reacts to microgravity. The longer the space mission, the more pronounced and pervasive the complications: muscles lose strength and shrink; the heart and blood vessels weaken and stiffen; bones lose their strength; reflexes, motor skills and coordination decrease. While astronauts on the ISS are still protected by the Earth's atmosphere, future crews on missions to more distant destinations like Mars would be exposed to higher levels of cosmic radiation, and would certainly experience greater psychological challenges of being away from home and family for extended periods of time.
To better understand the risks associated with human spaceflight—and to help find countermeasures and treatments—the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) works in collaboration with its partners to identify, characterize and mitigate the effects to astronauts' health and well-being, and minimize impacts on performance in order to make space travel safer and to benefit Canadians. The CSA's top priorities in space life science are:
- Studying the risks linked to physiological adaptation to space
- Monitoring radiation and protecting astronauts from its harmful effects, and
- Ensuring astronauts' psychological and psycho-social health.
One of the most surprising findings that could impact astronaut health stems from Canada's first scientific experiment on the ISS, H-Reflex. Conducted in 2001-2 by Dr. Douglas Watt of McGill University, H-Reflex found that reflex activation of the calf muscles (spinal cord excitability) decreased by about 35% in weightlessness, which could result in exercise in space being less effective, posing a problem that will need to be studied further for future long-duration missions.
The CSA-funded study VASCULAR, led by Dr. Richard Hughson of the University of Waterloo, discovered that astronauts returned from six months on the ISS with increased arterial stiffness equivalent to aging 10-20 years on Earth; the astronauts also showed signs of developing insulin resistance. These findings provide insight into the risks of future spaceflights and to the Canadian population by revealing that single daily aerobic and resistive exercise sessions are inadequate to preserve cardiovascular health when combined with a sedentary lifestyle. VASCULAR provided the foundation for future guidelines for optimal fitness strategies that can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and of developing type-2 diabetes in astronauts and the general population.
Most of the physiological changes are an excellent parallel for studying problems that affect ageing and increasingly sedentary populations here on Earth, who suffer from similar health issues. In fact, the Canadian Space Agency has teamed up with the Canadian Institutes for Health Research's Institute of Aging to pool knowledge on the subject and search for remedies or solutions.
Space Improving Health on Earth
Canada's space life sciences and space medicine community is a world leader in the field, producing 8% of the world's publications in the field. Supported by CSA funding, their research has generated significant benefits in health and medicine for Canadians, including:
- As part of the EVARM experiment in 2002-3, Best Medical (formerly Thompson-Neilson) tested radiation detectors in the astronauts' space suits during spacewalks. The tests helped improve the device, which is now being used in over 1000 cancer clinics worldwide. It better protects medical staff who administer radiation treatments to patients, as well as targets and measures radiation doses delivered to tumours.
- Bubble Technologies developed technology for real-time measurements of neutron radiation aboard the ISS, which was later used to monitor radiation levels at the site of the Chernobyl disaster.
- Thanks to the CSA's previous investments in Osteo and eOSTEO (a series of space experiments that involved developing an automated mini-lab for research on bone cells) the Canadian company CALM Technologies partnered with NASA and the National Institute of Health to upgrade the CSA's equipment for a new experiment called Osteo-4. Launched to the ISS in April 2015, this research may lead to a better understanding of osteoporosis and other bone degenerative diseases on Earth, and advance the search for countermeasures. The improved device will be returned to the CSA, allowing Canadian scientists to pursue their research on bone loss in space. Recently, the European Space Agency enlisted the help of CALM Technologies to produce a cell culture unit that will allow European research teams to study bone loss in space on the ISS.
The technology and expertise developed to build the Space Shuttle's Canadarm not only paved the way for its descendants, Canadarm2 and Dextre, on board the ISS but also gave rise to new medical technologies for the operating room:
- neuroArm: world's first robot capable of performing surgery inside magnetic resonance machines that can make inoperable brain tumours operable.
- IGAR: The Centre for Surgical Innovation and Invention turned to the precision of Canadarm technology to develop IGAR (Image-Guided Autonomous Robot), a promising platform offering one stop diagnosis and treatment for patients with a high risk of breast cancer.
- KidsArm: the first image-guided robotic surgical arm in the world specifically designed for pediatric surgery, is currently being tested at SickKids Hospital, and researchers are hoping that the technology might soon lend a helping hand to surgeons around the country.
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