Asharq Al-Awsat interviews researchers supervising Saudi space experiments
Space agencies usually impose a quarantine on travelers to the International Station to ensure that they are free from infectious diseases, but with the increase in space trips, whether for tourism or scientific missions, and the future trend towards space reconstruction, it may be difficult to implement such a procedure, and the space environment is Like Earth, it is vulnerable to the transmission of pathogens… Will human immunity in the space environment be able to provide protection for humans? Will the drugs be effective in treatment?
And some of the experiments that the Saudi astronauts Rayana Bernawi and Ali Al-Qarni began to implement at the “International Space Station” would contribute to providing an answer to previous and other questions, as they deal in part with “cell sciences”, by studying the inflammatory response of cells. Human immunogenicity in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station.
Dr. Khaled Abu Khabar, head of the Biomolecules Program at the Research Center at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, is supervising the experiments that are being conducted by Al-Qarni and Bernawi.
Abu Khabar explained to Asharq Al-Awsat the details of the experiments being carried out in space by the two Saudi astronauts, saying: “We sent with the astronauts immune white blood cells frozen at minus 80 degrees, after giving them the opportunity to adapt to the space environment within 48 hours of their arrival.” To the International Space Station, experiments have begun.
The experiments include, as Abu Khabar explains, “exposing the cells to a (non-infectious) microbial compound, to monitor the cells’ response to inflammation and infection.” He added: «This microbial compound operates a lot of the activity of genes, which we want to monitor, and is there a difference between what is happening on Earth and space, and the effect of the interaction of immune cells with the microbial compound will be monitored on the messenger RNA (message RNA) in the cells, and determine Exactly his age.
Abu Khabar says: “The importance of (message RNA) emerges as a vital molecule that plays an important role in transmitting, encoding, decoding and regulating the expression of genetic information and stimulating many chemical reactions. It is important to monitor the details of what happens in it during interaction with the microbial compound in the space environment.” Experiments not only monitor the problem, but they also suggest treatment, according to Abu Khabar, who explains: “We will also test the use of a hypothetical treatment, which is a chemical substance similar to the available treatments, as it will be used with immune cells that have been exposed to the microbial compound, to see if they respond to treatment in an environment.” space or not.
And the experiments in these details seem “unprecedented,” according to Abu Khabar, as they have never been conducted by “NASA” or any other space agency, and he explains: “It is not logical, with this historical event, that we carry out experiments that others have previously worked on.”
The Saudi expert believes that his country’s experiences “include many points of distinction,” referring to the fact that the research center in which he works “has a history of research work in the field of (RNA messenger).” He added, “We benefit from this research experience in these experiments, and no previous (NASA) or any other space agency has conducted research related to measuring the age of (message RNA) in cells, and we are also distinguished by the use of the microbial compound to monitor the inflammatory response, and the use of a substance that inhibits The microbial complex (virtual treatment) to monitor what is happening, and all these experiments are new of their kind.
And regarding the possibility that the results of their research will be useful in facing the threat of viruses such as “Covid-19” being transmitted to space, Abu Khabar said that it “will be useful in giving a perception of immunity against viruses in the space environment and the extent of the effectiveness of drugs in the same range, and it will also be useful in giving A vision about the possibility of producing vaccines in space using (MRNA) technologies, such as those used in (Covid-19) vaccines, such as the (Pfizer and Moderna) vaccines, as there is a tendency to build production plants for some materials in space. Obtaining the same exact details of the space environment.” And he says: “If we want to test what is happening in the space environment, there is no alternative to going there, so that we can obtain accurate results.”
And if those researches are conducted using immune cells that were brought from Earth, then there will be other research that will be conducted on the astronauts themselves, led by Badr Shira, a researcher specializing in space medicine at the “Sadeem” company for research and development that specializes in “space medicine.”
Shira told Asharq Al-Awsat that the research that will be conducted under his supervision will focus on the nervous system, as it will include measuring blood flow to the brain and its electrical activity, assessing intracranial pressure by non-surgical assessment of the pupils, and monitoring changes in the nerve. vision over time.
He explains that the experiments will also include, “taking blood samples and vital samples to examine vital indicators related to space flights and to map changes in the length, structure, and genetics of chromosomes.” He adds that the results of this research “will help improve neurohealth monitoring to make spaceflight safer in the future and allow the development of rapid and non-invasive monitoring, as well as early interventions and the development of preventive measures.”
According to Shira, these experiments do not represent any danger to the health of the astronauts, because they “rely on modern and new measuring devices, and do not cause any harmful interactions, and their role is limited to providing vital indicators that help to understand what is happening in the space environment.”
In addition to health research, there is research of another kind, which is the artificial rain experiment, which is carried out under the supervision of Ashraf Farhat, a professor at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.
According to a statement by the “Saudi Space Authority”, this experiment will include “condensation of water vapor on plankton and salt atoms in microgravity to simulate the cloud seeding process used in Saudi Arabia and many other countries to increase precipitation rates.”
The statement says, “These experiments will help devise new ways to provide suitable conditions for humans, including making artificial rain to live in space colonies on the surface of the Moon and Mars, and will also contribute to improving researchers’ understanding of rain seeding technology, which will contribute to increasing rainfall in many countries.” ».
And because going to space will become a regular thing in the near future, for tourism, economic and scientific reasons, the researchers believe that there is a great economic return for this research. Abu Khabar says, “Any dollar spent on such research will have an economic return of ten dollars in the future.”
And he adds, “Space research, some of which will be useful only for space flights, while others may have a reflection on life on planet Earth. Its basis is space research, useful for life on Earth.
Shira confirms the same meaning, saying, “These researches are in line with (Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030), which includes the space sector’s contribution to the Kingdom’s transformation towards an innovation-based economy.” Pointing out that «the Kingdom seeks to make the space sector a catalyst for investment, and help in creating new markets that will be a tributary to economic diversification and the creation of new jobs».