Two of a Kind, But One in Spaceflight: NASA Selects Proposals for Kelly Twin Studies

The Kelly brothers - Scott and Mark (left to right) - pose in May 2008. In 2015, both will be test subjects aiding researchers in the study of spaceflight's effects on the human body. Photo Credit: NASA
The Kelly brothers – Scott and Mark (left to right) – pose together in May 2008. In 2015, both will be test subjects aiding researchers in the study of spaceflight’s effects on the human body. Photo Credit: NASA

Identical twins Mark and Scott Kelly share more than just genetics – at one time, they also shared the same careers. Now, as Scott ramps up for his year-long spaceflight on the International Space Station (scheduled to begin in March 2015 alongside Roscosmos cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko), spaceflight’s only twins to fly will contribute to our understanding of the effects of space on the human body. NASA has announced that its Human Research Program (HRP) will fund 10 studies investigating these various effects, partnering with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. The test subjects include both Kelly brothers – of course, one will be in space, while one will remain on Earth.

According to NASA, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute will work with HRP to assist in research and genetic counseling. Before, during, and after the year-long mission, blood samples will be taken from both brothers to provide insight into the changes that microgravity causes in the human body; in addition, psychological and physiological testing will also be undertaken during this period.

The 10 studies are a response to a research announcement entitled, “Human Exploration Research Opportunities – Differential Effects on Homozygous Twin Astronauts Associated with Differences in Exposure to Spaceflight Factors.” According to NASA, the studies are as follows:

  • Emmanuel Mignot, Stanford University School of Medicine, HERO Twin Astronaut Study Consortium (TASC): Immunome Changes in Space
  • Michael Snyder, Stanford University, HERO Twin Astronaut Study Consortium (TASC) Project: Longitudinal integrated multi-omics analysis of the biomolecular effects of space travel
  • Brinda Rana, University of California, Proteomic Assessment of Fluid Shifts and Association with Visual Impairment and Intracranial Pressure in Twin Astronauts
  • Susan Bailey, Colorado State University, Differential effects on telomeres and telomerase in twin astronauts associated with spaceflight
  • Fred Turek, Northwestern University, HERO Twin Astronaut Study Consortium (TASC) Project: Metagenomic Sequencing of the Bacteriome in GI Tract of Twin Astronauts
  • Andrew Feinberg, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Comprehensive whole genome analysis of differential epigenetic effects of space travel on monozygotic twins
  • Christopher Mason, Weill Medical College of Cornell University, The Landscape of DNA and RNA Methylation Before, During, and After Human Space Travel
  • Mathias Basner, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, HERO Twin Astronaut Study Consortium (TASC) Project: Cognition on Monozygotic Twin on Earth
  • Stuart Lee, Wyle Laboratories, Metabolomic And Genomic Markers Of Atherosclerosis As Related To Oxidative Stress, Inflammation, And Vascular Function In Twin Astronauts
  • Scott Smith, NASA Johnson Space Center, Biochemical Profile: Homozygous Twin control for a 12 month Space Flight Exposure

These proposals are slated to receive $1.5 million (combined) during a period of three years. NASA’s HRP works with astronauts and researchers alike to investigate the health risks associated with spaceflight, and come up with solutions to minimize risk factors. Although much of the research is conducted in space, it is hoped these studies will also aid patients on Earth – NASA hopes these studies will advance healthcare on terra firma, as well as in low Earth orbit.

The Kelly brothers are the world’s only twin space explorers, and both have impressive careers. Mark Kelly flew on STS-108, 121, 124, and 134. Shortly after his final flight commanding Endeavour’s last mission in 2011, he retired to help his wife, former U.S. House Representative Gabrielle Giffords, recover from injuries sustained when she was shot earlier that year (thankfully, Giffords continues to make strides in recovery, and even went skydiving earlier this year). Scott Kelly flew on STS-103, 118, and was part of ISS Expedition 25/26, commanding the space station during the latter portion of the expedition. And next year, both men will further contribute to what we know about health in space in their own unique (yet similar) ways.


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