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L-R: NASA's Chief Health and Medical Officer Dr James Polk, NASA Physician and Astronaut Dr Mike Barratt, the University of Birmingham's Dr Alex Sinclair and a researcher in her laboratory at the University

NASA scientists and astronauts have visited the University of Birmingham to discuss how drug discoveries in NHS patients could reduce brain pressure during space travel to allow them to go beyond the Moon. 

One of NASA’s missions is to see the first humans set foot on Mars, however microgravity – which causes astronauts to float in space – can have significant physiological effects on the body and can lead to pressure on the brain that can cause visual impairment.

Astronauts would spend months in microgravity travelling to and from the Red Planet, therefore NASA’s scientists need to find a solution to prevent this intracranial pressure. 

Now a delegation from NASA, including its Chief Health and Medical Officer Dr James Polk, has held round-table talks with Dr Alex Sinclair and her research group at the University of Birmingham to learn more about their research into a condition called Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension (IIH) which has similar effects on the body as the brain pressure caused by space travel. 

NIHR Clinician Scientist Fellow Dr Sinclair is also a consultant neurologist at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, leading one of the world’s largest IIH clinical services based at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham. 

By combining clinical neurology with translational research, Dr Sinclair and her team are now world leading experts in brain pressure and their recent research published in Science Translational Medicine showed that treating an animal model with a drug, a GLP1-R agonist called Exenatide, can reduce intracranial pressure. A clinical trial in patients with IIH is underway.  

Dr Sinclair, of the University’s Institute of Metabolism and Systems Research, said: “NASA scientists are trying to find a solution to space flight raised brain pressure which could be problematic for human Mars exploration. 

“We were delighted to welcome the NASA team to the University of Birmingham to exchange observations and ideas; ultimately our new drug discovery may be the solution to reducing brain pressure during space flight. 

“We hope this visit will lead to research in collaboration with NASA to help address this important issue that will push the boundaries of human exploration forward to Mars.” 

The NASA delegation, which included Dr Terrance Taddeo, Johnson Space Centre Chief Medical Officer; Dr Mike Barratt, Physician and Astronaut; and Dr Victor Schneider, Physician Liaison to the NASA Human Research Programme, spent two days at the University on 6 and 7 June.  On 7 June a special lecture was given at the University’s Medical School by Dr Polk titled: ‘On Frontiers edge: Taking medicine beyond earth’ discussing the challenges faced by human physiology in long-term space flight. 

The NASA visit showcases the value of Birmingham Health Partners (BHP), a strategic alliance between the University of Birmingham and two NHS Foundation Trusts – University Hospitals Birmingham and Birmingham Women’s & Children’s – where members collaborate to bring healthcare innovations through to clinical application. 

Professor David Adams, Director of BHP and Head of the University’s College of Medical and Dental Sciences and Dean of Medicine, said: “We were thrilled to welcome the NASA delegation. This visit highlights how by enabling integrated, multidisciplinary working, BHP helps bring about answers to complex healthcare issues for the direct benefit of people worldwide and even beyond.”