NASA delegation visits University of Birmingham to discuss its mission to Mars

L-R: NASA's Chief Health and Medical Officer Dr James Polk, NASA Physician and Astronaut Dr Mike Barratt, University of Birmingham's Dr Alex Sinclair and her 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 of Birmingham’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 June 6th and 7th. On June 7th 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 of Birmingham’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.”

Ends

For more information please contact Emma McKinney, Communications Manager (Health Sciences), University of Birmingham, tel: +44 (0) 121 414 6681, or contact the press office on +44 (0) 7789 921 165.

Notes to editors:

  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.
  • Founded in 2011, Birmingham Health Partners (BHP) drives the development of new diagnostics, drugs and devices by bringing together a renowned University and two leading NHS foundation trusts. Its unique ecosystem enables the full spectrum of translational medicine: encompassing health data; an established local health system; academic excellence; and an extensive clinical trials capability. Read more at www.birminghamhealthpartners.co.uk
  • University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust runs the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, Birmingham Chest Clinic, Heartlands Hospital, Good Hope Hospital, Solihull Hospital. UHB is one of the largest Trusts in England treating over 2.2 million patients each year, with regional centres for trauma, burns, plastics, neurosciences, dermatology and cancer.
  • The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation's largest funder of health and care research. The NIHR:
  1. Funds, supports and delivers high quality research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care
  2. Engages and involves patients, carers and the public in order to improve the reach, quality and impact of research
  3. Attracts, trains and supports the best researchers to tackle the complex health and care challenges of the future
  4. Invests in world-class infrastructure and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services
  5. Partners with other public funders, charities and industry to maximise the value of research to patients and the economy
  • The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research, and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR supports applied health research for the direct and primary benefit of people in low- and middle-income countries, using UK aid from the UK government.