When an unmanned supply mission launched into space on April 18, bound for the International Space Station, it meant something extraordinary to Dr. Peter Lee, a cardiothoracic surgeon at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. That's because his research experiment is on board.
Lee has been fascinated by space exploration since he was a child. Now, that fascination has evolved into a passion for space medicine and learning about the effects of space travel on the heart.
"It's more than the joy ride of traveling in space. I don't have to do that. What excites me is being a part of the science, the learning and the research," Lee said.
In a small box, on board the private rocket, Lee sent approximately 200 fruit flies into space, to be exposed to the effects of microgravity and space radiation for 30 days while docked with the International Space Station. It is one of only eight research studies on this mission sponsored by Space Florida, an aerospace economic development agency that supports space exploration. When the flies return, Lee and his collaborators will examine their hearts, looking for cardiovascular changes and changes in gene expression.
"About three-fourths of known human disease genes can be matched in the genome of fruit flies," Lee said. "I hope the analysis will help us learn what happens to the hearts of astronauts and how to prevent cardiovascular problems in the future. Eventually, our findings could someday help astronauts explore or even live in deep space."
Lee's research into space medicine has spanned decades and he has been involved in other missions. One of Lee's experiments flew with John Glenn when he made his return to space in 1998 at the age of 77. While working at Brown, Harvard, and Stanford Universities, Lee led several student groups that researched ways to perform CPR in zero gravity, practiced airway intubations, and tested various medical techniques and equipment to see if they can be used for space travel. Lee says he's looking forward to leading similar student groups at Ohio State.
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