UArizona Research Project to Monitor Health of SpaceX Inspiration4 Crew

zenhausern and colleagues

From left to right: Frederic Zenhausern with Center for Applied NanoBioscience and Medicine researchers Jerome Lacombe, Ali Fattahi, Jian Gu; Kaitlyn Janssen, an Arizona State University undergraduate student studying biomedical engineering; Jasmine Devadhasan; and Alexander Summers.

Space flight is not just for astronauts and rocket scientists anymore. SpaceX Inspiration4, the world's first all-civilian mission, will make the dream of orbiting Earth come true for a crew of civilians on Sept. 15. Researchers with the Center for Applied NanoBioscience and Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix, led by center director Frederic Zenhausern, will provide the first in-flight testing of multiple biomarkers of stress, inflammation and immunity measured in a zero-gravity environment to monitor the health of the four-member crew.

The essential task of protecting humans from exposure to hazards is critical to the prospect of future deep space exploration. Zenhausern and his team developed a novel technology that will monitor crew members' stress, inflammation and immune levels during space flight through a blood droplet from a fingerstick or a saliva sample.

"Our development of advanced molecular diagnostics for multipurpose indications of emerging infectious diseases, health performance or risks of environmental exposure must benefit all populations where possible," said Zenhausern, a member of the university's BIO5 Institute. "This Inspiration4 mission shares some operational requirements similar to a consumer health product to be performed at home or in low-resources settings, which must be easy to use, minimally invasive, rapid and low cost."

VeriFAST device

A VeriFAST device.

The Vertical Integrated Flow Assay System Technology, known as VeriFAST, uses blood or saliva deposited onto a device to perform rapid assessments of physiological or molecular effects on humans. The system provides precise measurements, including multiplex molecular diagnostics, to detect possible radiation exposure. The devices have nanoporous membranes printed with arrays of reagents arranged in rows. When the assessments are completed, the spots in the array change color, providing visual results within minutes.

Zenhausern and his team designed the VeriFAST platform to assess a full range of biomarkers, from proteins to genes. While the Inspiration4 mission will take less than a week to complete, it will provide a unique opportunity to apply the VeriFAST platform to help researchers study the molecular and physiological levels in the human body under extreme zero-gravity conditions. One of the biomarkers measured by VeriFAST is the C-reactive protein. The level of that protein in blood has long been used as a diagnostic marker of inflammatory response, including the response occurring in cancer. This biomedical data will offer valuable insights and help inform the measures necessary to protect future astronaut crews in orbit during longer missions.

Zero gravity, confinement and radiation experienced during space flight can have significant health consequences. Space radiation is risky to the human body, potentially causing damage to the DNA in cells. Radiation exposure may occur during deep-space missions and can increase the risk of long-term health consequences such as cancer. Adverse effects to the central nervous and cardiovascular systems may also occur.  It is difficult to determine remotely the health consequences on the tissues and cells of crew members.

"As civilian space travel becomes more frequent and accessible, the university is well positioned to lead in the important, emerging field of aerospace biomedicine," said Elizabeth "Betsy" Cantwell, the university's senior vice president for research and innovation. "The new knowledge Dr. Zenhausern's group will create through SpaceX Inspiration4 is really the tip of the iceberg toward a better understanding of in-flight health."

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, known as TRISH, funded the project, which is part of a research complement to be conducted during the multi-day journey. The Inspiration4 crew, commanded by Jared Isaacman, founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, will contribute to the space biomedical community by participating in important scientific research during the mission. Inspiration4's goal is to inspire humanity and to advance cancer research through collaboration with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

If the VeriFAST platform is validated by the Inspiration4 crew, it could provide a valuable blood and saliva analysis system to support the health and performance of future space crews. The biomedical samples collected during the Inspiration4 mission will become part of a biobank used for future collaborations by research teams at SpaceX, TRISH and the UArizona College of Medicine – Phoenix.

"Innovation and problem solving to improve health are at the core of what we do. That impact has been felt in Arizona, around the world and now for those in space," said Dr. Guy Reed, dean of the UArizona College of Medicine – Phoenix. "This collaboration with TRISH, SpaceX and the ANBM Center creates synergies that will help to protect humans against radiation injury and other hazards that they encounter during space travel. It will fuel the development of new therapies and preventive strategies for crew members and patients here on Earth and beyond."

A version of this article originally appeared on the College of Medicine – Phoenix website:

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