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With the prospect of space travel for tourists looming, clinicians could soon be asked to advise on medical clearance for their patients, says a paper published in a recent edition of BMJ.

Though space travel opportunities are becoming increasingly available to the general public, the medical community has yet to develop standardized, evidence-based protocol for determining when patients are at risk for medical complications due to the physical rigors of the experience. Technological advances in the capacity for space travel have yet to be matched by a thorough medical understanding of when civilians - not as rigorously trained and medically monitored as astronauts - should and should not travel in space.

A team of researchers from the San Francisco VA Medical Center and the University of California San Francisco, armed with the distinguished presence of NCIRE researcher Marlene Grenon and former astronaut Millie Hughes-Fulford PhD, recently provided new insights to clinicians who require direction when advising patients on space travel.  

The Aerospace Medical Association Commercial Spaceflight Working Group published a document in 2009 stating that most individuals with “well controlled medical conditions” could withstand the acceleration forces from a launch of a commercial spaceflight. But the article highlights the importance of recognizing the potential impact of space flight on pre-existing conditions.  

Loss of appetite, space motion sickness, fatigue, insomnia, dehydration and back pain are already very common in space travel. Plus, the increasing number of travelers who are not as healthy as astronauts could have important implications for the risk of in-flight medical events.

Expectations of increased travel will bring great opportunities for the public, but may also raise challenges in preparatory clinical care and treatment of unforeseen medical issues. For patients requiring clearance letters, the researchers suggest that clinicians should consider developing a ‘resource file’ for future reference.

As one of very few people to experience the rigors of space flight, Dr. Hughes-Fulford brings a unique perspective to the relevance of this work to the larger portfolio of research at the San Francisco VA and NCIRE.

"Be it combat service or space flight, we know that certain extreme human experiences impact the immune system and reshape the aging process. By working together to better understand exactly how that is happening on the cellular level, we can make substantive medical breakthroughs for people on the ground, people in combat, and people who are traveling through space."

Millie Hughes-Fulford, PhD serves as Scientific Advisor to the Under Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and is an Adjunct Professor of Medicine at UCSF.

Public link to paper:

Lab Of Cell Growth, directed by Millie Hughes Fulford PhD:

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January 28, 2019