Funded by grants and contracts amounting to $80,000, NASA has initiated a study to assess how herpes viruses behave in space and to further understand how these pathogens mutate and worsen throughout manned missions and space flights.
The federal agency awarded the grants to a researcher from the University of Florida. David Bloom, professor at University of Florida's Department of Molecular Genetics & Microbiology is set to conduct the study titled "Effect of Spaceflight on Herpesvirus Genome Stability and Diversity."
The researcher is expected to finish the study by 2018. NASA hopes to shed light on mutation rate and why the symptoms of the viral infection become worse as it goes into space and leaves Earth.
"The goal of this study will be to determine the changes in the genomic and mutational diversity that is present in the Herpes virus present in astronaut saliva and urine samples collected before, during, and after space flight," NASA said in its website.
The study aims to recruit ground subjects who will serve as the control group. They will provide urine and saliva samples before and after the astronauts' flights. This will help the researchers identify the effects of space flight in the behavior and mutations of the herpesviruses.
The study will include the four types of herpes such as Epstein Barr virus (herpesvirus 4), Varicella zoster (the virus that causes chicken pox), Cytomegalovirus and Herpes simplex viruses, which cause genital herpes.
There is still no known cure for the contagious condition. According to the World Health Organization, more than 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 or 67 percent of the population are infected with herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). HSV-1 is primarily transmitted by oral-to-oral contact and in most cases, causes cold sores. On the other hand, HSV-2 is sexually transmitted through skin-to-skin contact.
In 2012, NASA released a report explaining why so many astronauts develop reinfections of shingles, a disease characterized by painful skin lesions. Also called herpes zoster, the disease is classified as a reinfection when someone already had chicken pox before but got exposed to the virus later in his or her life.
According to the report, the physical, emotional and psychological stresses associated with spaceflight may weaken the immune system, causing reactivation of the virus. Spaceflight is known to alter elements of the human immune system.
"Researchers at NASA's Johnson Space Center found that four human herpes viruses reactivate and appear in body fluids in response to spaceflight. Due to the reduced cellular immunity, the viruses are allowed to emerge from their latent state into active infectious agents," NASA said.
"To overcome this obstacle in an effort to investigate viral reactivation in crew members, NASA developed a rapid method of detection of VZV in body fluids, and a patent application is currently pending for it," NASA added.
Photo: Yale Rosen | Flickr