Breath samples: a space odyssey

Posted on Friday, October 14, 2016

Thousands of kilometres. That’s the distance that breath samples collected aboard the International Space Station have travelled before being sent back to Earth for analysis. It’s also the distance that separates them from the Bone and Joint Research Laboratory at the University of Ottawa.

NASA captured live shots of American astronaut Jeff Williams collecting a sample of his breath for MARROW, a Canadian experiment. The photos give a unique glimpse into research led by Dr. Guy Trudel, a uOttawa professor and specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Rehabilitation Centre of The Ottawa Hospital, and Odette Laneuville, a biology professor in the Faculty of Science and expert in the biology of rehabilitation. Their team is studying the bone marrow health of 10 astronauts over the course of their six-month missions in space, as well as during the year after their return.

The project is investigating how weightlessness affects the bone marrow production of normally functioning blood cells. By measuring carbon monoxide levels in breath samples, researchers can monitor the degradation of red blood cells. They aim to better understand the effects of extended space travel on bone marrow health and blood cell metabolism, findings that could also apply to patients on Earth who need rehabilitation after being bedridden for extended periods.

While staff on the ground take the pre- and post-flight blood samples and assist with breath sampling, the astronauts themselves must take these samples once they’re in space. The weightless environment adds an extra challenge to sample gathering, and the research team worked with the Canadian Space Agency, which funds the study, to come up with a workable solution for taking breath samples.

It just goes to show that space really is the final frontier … even for sample gathering.

Photos: NASA

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