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Astronauts’ blood shows signs of DNA mutations because of spaceflight

space shuttle landing in the desert with a chase plane in front

Short-duration space shuttle missions could have put its astronauts at an increased risk for cancer, a fresh study concludes.(Image credit: NASA)

Astronaut cancer risk needs careful monitoring, concludes a report that stored spaceflyer blood for 20 years.

All fourteen astronauts in the analysis, from NASA’s space shuttle program, had DNA mutations in blood-forming stem cells, a Nature Communications Biology study (opens in new tab) Aug. 31 concluded. The mutations, though unusually high taking into consideration the astronauts’ age, was below an integral threshold of concern, however.

As the study is exclusive for keeping astronaut blood around for such a long time, the results aren’t show-stopping. Rather, the researchers claim that astronauts ought to be at the mercy of periodic blood screening to help keep a watch on possible mutations. (Also it is highly recommended in context; another 2019 study, for instance, discovered that astronauts are not dying from cancer because of ionizing space radiation.)

Related: The final voyage of NASA’s space shuttle: Looking back at Atlantis’ final mission 10 years later

Monitoring programs will nevertheless be crucial as NASA reaches for long-duration deep space missions through its Artemis program on the moon and later, human excursions to Mars, the brand new study team said in a statement (opens in new tab). (The brand new study and the 2019 cancer study both largely considered short-duration mission astronauts.)

The team made a decision to pursue the brand new study in light of “the growing fascination with both commercial spaceflights and deep space exploration, and the potential health threats of contact with various harmful factors which are connected with repeated or long-duration exploration space missions,” study lead author Dr. David Goukassian and cardiology professor at Icahn Mount Sinai said in the statement.

NASA recently changed its lifetime radiation requirements for astronauts that critics said were discriminating against women, who historically had lower limits than male astronauts. (Up to now, other genders haven’t been disclosed in the agency population.)

space shuttle lifting off at night, with a reflection in the water in front

A back end view of an area shuttle launching into space. Radiation risks for astronauts on these short-duration missions continues to be being studied. (Image credit: NASA)

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The researchers found an increased frequency of somatic mutations in the genes of the 14 astronauts considered in the analysis, in accordance with statistics for the populace who has gone to space.

The area cohort flew between 1998 and 2001 on shuttle missions of typically 12 days. Roughly 85 percent of the group was male, and six of the astronauts were on the first mission.

Researchers collected whole blood samples from the astronauts twice, exactly 10 days before spaceflight and on your day of landing. White blood cells were collected once, three days after landing. The blood samples were then left untouched in a freezer for 20 years, chilling at minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 80 degrees Celsius.)

The somatic mutations observed in the genes was significantly less than two percent, however. Those individuals who breach that threshold face more risk in developing coronary disease and some types of cancer, the statement said.

“The current presence of these mutations will not indicate that the astronauts will establish coronary disease or cancer, but there’s the chance that, as time passes, this may happen through ongoing and prolonged contact with the extreme environment of deep space,” Goukassian added.

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Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is really a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to greatly help others explore the universe. Elizabeth’s on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from the simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada’s Carleton University. Elizabeth can be a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got thinking about space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, but still really wants to be an astronaut someday.

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