It sounds like fodder for an animated film, but it’s serious science for 16 mice from The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor that have been sent for a ride on the space shuttle Discovery.

The “astromice,” as some people call them, are part of an experiment that will help scientists understand the long-term effects of zero gravity on the immune system’s ability to fight infection.

It’s the second time that mice from the Maine lab have joined a shuttle crew. The first was in 2001, when two dozen JAX Mice flew aboard the space shuttle Endeavour for an experiment to study the effects of weightlessness on bone density.

Each time, the lab has enjoyed the attention generated by its mice, which are bred for transplantation studies and immunology research. But no, the critters don’t wear tiny space helmets.

“People get a chuckle out of it,” said Joyce Peterson, the lab’s public relations manager. “It’s very exciting for the lab and for the people of Maine.”

Discovery lifted off Monday for a 13-day mission. The JAX Mice are subjects in one of several experiments happening on the shuttle.

The mice are in a special enclosure, used on 23 previous shuttle flights, where they experience microgravity, according to NASA’s Web site. The animals require little care, though the human crew will check on their health daily and replenish their water supply as needed.

Suppression of the immune system in a zero-gravity environment may be a significant obstacle to long-term space travel by humans, according to NASA’s Web site. Scientists wants to know whether astronauts can generate effective immune responses against infections while in space.

In particular, NASA hopes the results will help to develop ways to improve wound healing and boost the immune systems of future astronauts during stressful, long-duration space flights, said Peterson.

The experiment will look specifically at Memory T cells, which are the mediators of immune protection after vaccinations. Whether the cells function properly during spaceflight will help determine whether pre-flight vaccinations may be useful.

The principal investigator for the mouse immunology experiment is Millie Hughes-Fulford, a biochemist from San Francisco who flew a shuttle mission in 1984.

The 16 astromice, as she dubbed them, were transported in January from her lab to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where they acclimated to a diet of “NASA bars,” which are specially formulated to prevent the mice from floating in zero gravity.

Hughes-Fulford has another 16 JAX Mice in a control setting at her lab in California, where she will later compare their immune systems to those of the mice that rode the shuttle, Peterson said.

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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