Healthcare's next experimental frontier: Space

The Hackensack Meridian Center for Discovery and Innovation in Nutley, N.J., is partnering with Houston-based Axiom Space to conduct experiments — on Earth and in space — to learn how microgravity affects humans and to advance care for today's biggest healthcare concerns, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The CDI is part of Edison, N.J.-based Hackensack Meridian Health.

The intent is to "better understand human health and disease on Earth and ensure safe space travel," according to a Feb. 23 Hackensack Meridian news release.

Axiom is building the world's first commercial space station — where many experiments will eventually be conducted — and expects it to be fully operational by 2025.

Since Axiom is looking to a future when civilian space travel is possible, David Perlin, PhD, chief scientific officer and executive vice president of the CDI, told Becker's that CDI scientists will look for ways to keep humans safe when they travel into the harsh environment beyond Earth's atmosphere.

Dr. Perlin is excited about the partnership because of what he believes will be significant information gathered about next-stage healthcare. 

"I'm not interested in today's standard of care. I'm interested in tomorrow's standard of care. As a healthcare concern, we want to be forward-thinking. We want to always be thinking about what it is we don't know yet, and what can we do to accelerate the way we treat patients," Dr. Perlin said. "Whatever the standard of care was five years ago, it's different today and it will be different five years from now. Our job is to develop the next standard of care."

Daily stress from life's challenges is not the same as the physical stress microgravity from space travel puts upon the body, Dr. Perlin said, referring to data collected from astronauts after space flight. 

"One of the things we see in patients who have undergone significant trauma is a massive inflammatory response," he said. "But trauma can mean cancer, surgery or other stressful life events. By learning about factors that keep space travel safe, we can apply the knowledge to improve the terrestrial health of humans with a wide variety of conditions and diseases." 

He said he sees this project as an ability to study another population cohort. "We have and continue to study cancer patients, diabetes patients, patients with respiratory diseases and even COVID patients," Dr. Perlin said. "Let's be out in front of space travel and study this patient population. I believe it will potentially help us manage our patients better here on the ground."  

Considering the "astronomically high price tag of space travel," he added, "the initial experiments will be conducted on Earth first to evaluate the effects of simulated space travel. We will be monitoring various biomarkers in the test subjects that will allow us to find out what is necessary to adapt to space conditions."

Dr. Perlin and his team at the CDI are in the planning stages of the collaboration, hoping experiments will begin before the end of the year.

When will experiments be conducted in space and when might civilians be able to vacation beyond Earth? The answers to those questions are up in the air.

But Robert Garrett, CEO of Hackensack Meridian, said in the release that "The sky isn't the limit when it comes to the expertise of our scientists."

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