Next SpaceX mission will include Maltese experiments on anaemia

SpaceX’s Polaris Dawn crew will be the first all-private mission to perform the first-ever commercial spacewalk outside the Crew Dragon spacecraft. MaltaToday speaks to Professor Joseph Borg, who is leading the crew 

SpaceX is an American spacecraft corporation owned by the world’s second-richest man, Elon Musk, and has recorded a lot of firsts: it developed the first privately developed liquid-propellant rocket to reach orbit around Earth; the first private company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft; the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station; the first vertical take-off and vertical propulsive landing for an orbital rocket booster; first reuse of such booster; and the first private company to send astronauts to orbit and to the International Space Station.

SpaceX has flown and landed the Falcon 9 series of rockets over one hundred times.

In March 2023, SpaceX’s Polaris Dawn crew will be the first all-private mission to perform the first-ever commercial spacewalk outside the Crew Dragon spacecraft.

And that mission crew will be undergoing research on space anaemia conducted by the University of Malta, under the leadership of Professor Joseph Borg.

Borg told MaltaToday that the UOM’s project – called ‘Pleiades’ – will allow researchers to study and understand better how red blood cells get destroyed under space flight and stress conditions, including microgravity and high solar radiation.

Astronauts typically return from space with anaemia – a blood disorder in which the blood has a reduced ability to carry oxygen due to a low red blood cell number and reduction in the amount of hemoglobin.

“We know that a million red blood cells more per second get destroyed in space when compared to Earth, which results in roughly 54% more cells destroyed in people that travel to space than those that remain on earth,” he said. “Knowing how these red blood cells are destroyed, why, and how it can be mitigated will allow us to devise better therapies aimed at treating blood disorders such as thalassaemia and sickle cell disease. This is by discovering those hard-to-find master controllers and genes that control cell development and their expansion.”

Borg said that blood samples from the astronauts will be taken befire, during and at the completion of their mission.

“Having their blood samples, shipped to the University of Malta, and having them analysed using our equipment will allow us to be part of an exciting and international study.”

The astronaut’s blood will be assessed for haemoglobin profiling and various fractions that researchers usually encounter. Historically haemoglobin profiling has been an essential technique used on many thousands of Maltese people especially as part of neonatal screening for abnormal haemoglobins. 

“No one has ever looked at haemoglobin, its expression and their fractions in astronauts’ blood before, and so this project will open a new niche for life sciences in microgravity building on the success of Project Maleth,” Borg said.

Under Project Maleth, Borg and his team have already sent two science research projects aboard SpaceX NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) missions to the International Space Station (ISS), and are now getting ready to send a third. 

“The third mission will be the final one under the Maleth programme, and wrap it up. It is a follow-up of I and II, however with different and collaborating countries from the Middle East,” Borg said.

“We are looking at same climate and overall health conditions (Type 2 Diabetic complications) but of course, different ethnic background and different genetics. It would be extremely useful to compare the genomics between different populations under the experiments of space research.” 

With regards to the upcoming project, Borg said that anaemia in astronauts is not permanent but takes up to six or seven months to resolve upon the astronauts’ return back to earth.

Resolving anaemia, or better still mitigating the effects of space to not become anemic would be a huge milestone with benefits to both space-for-space applications and space-for-earth applications. 

Borg will conducting his research in collaboration with Professor Guy Trudel at Canada’s Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI).

Trudel is a renowned professor and scientist who already worked extensively on space anaemia before. The collaboration will ensure that scientists from the University of Malta led by Borg, together with his team and those that present in Canada, will get to coordinate all experiments, the design and planning of all laboratory work conducted in Canada and in Malta.

“We have already run mock trials and testing between Canada and Malta, and we are now ready for the real mission when it happens,” Borg said.

He said that the focus of the research will be very specifically on haemoglobin profiling and different fractions observed (foetal vs. adult haemoglobin ).

“There will also be advanced tools to separate blood cells into their respective type, whether it is white blood cells, red blood cells and other specialised cells that we find in blood,” he explained.

These will then be tested and compared with each other, noting the different time and altitude points encountered in the study: blood before launch, blood during orbital spaceflight (over five to six days) and blood upon return back to Earth.

Borg said that this research has a strong basic and fundamental science aspect to it, one that looks at the regulation, control and development of red blood cells, their adaptation and behaviour under different micro environments and their genomic differences.

“The lessons we learn can be applied to a range of other blood disorders that may include cancer such as leukaemia and Myelodysplastic syndromes,” he said.

The Polaris Dawn mission itself is conducting over 20 different experiments related to life and medical sciences in space. Pleiades is one of them. 

Space vs earth research

Research in space is as vast as the very definition of space itself. It can be chemical, physical or biological, computer science, engineering, and mathematical. The possibilities of space research are endless, Borg said.

“I focus on health and bioscience in space, since my last 12 years as an academic were centred around human genetics and DNA science of life,” he explained. “I believe I can utilise space as a good medium and a tool to further my ambitious goals in understanding life as we know it, together with attempting to understand when disease and illness develop.”

Space has that useful aspect, in amplifying any errors, problems and mechanistic observations that we also see here on Earth. Amplifying signals, will allow the research teams to reach answers faster and therefore develop treatments, and products faster.

Borg believes this research is a giant leap for life science research in the modern and post-genomic era.

“We can attain data, results, like never before to better the health and life of those who are inflicted with anaemia for a life-time,” he said. “Moreover, the implications can have far-reaching effects (no pun intended) to other countries abroad who too wish to tackle and control blood disorders as discussed.”

Borg said that that at least four other orbital space stations are being built and commissioned to become active this very decade.

Having Malta participate in this type of research, and having also the very first company in Malta, Spaceomix Ltd. which has been created purposely to leverage the space assets for research, development and innovation is a small step in an upward trajectory.

“However it will matter a lot how serious the intentions and designs of space programme like Maleth and Pleiades are for our country,” Borg said.

“I am convinced that other local players will rise up to the occasion, and also sent missions, payloads, and even develop programs to capitalise on what space research has to offer.”

What next?

Borg says he is now laser-focused on concluding the Maleth III mission in space and bringing the programme to completion here on Earth.

Those experiments also form part of an ongoing PhD project for Christine Gatt, who is studying under Borg. In parallel, Borg’s research team is geared to commence Pleiades first mission early next year and he is extremely excited to what this may mean for their broader collaboration and partnership with companies and agencies such as SpaceX, ESA and NASA.

“We are already a group of four people working in various analysis working groups at NASA’s Gene Lab, with data from Maleth missions already deposited and available as part of open science research,” he said.

Borg – and his team – believe that sharing of data and knowledge will help researches in solve some, if not all, of the world’s health problems and issues.

“And the faster other people realise that, the better,” he said. “We may live for a lifetime, but that lifetime is finite and it matters a lot what is done in between start and the finish.”