BAR HARBOR, Maine — Sixteen mice from The Jackson Laboratory are aboard the space shuttle Discovery this very moment, floating somewhere in outer space. Their assignment? To help scientists study the effects of space environments on immune systems.
The mice, part of a specific strain developed by Jackson Lab scientists, will return to Earth next Saturday to be studied by Millie Hughes-Fulford, the main researcher for the experiment. Hughes-Fulford is a researcher from the Northern California Institute for Research and Education and the University of California at San Francisco who actually flew on a NASA shuttle in the 1980s.
“It’s not the first time our mice have been in space, but it’s pretty neat,” Jackson Lab spokeswoman Joyce Peterson said.
Two dozen Maine mice joined the space shuttle Endeavor on a mission in 2001 to study the effects of a no-gravity environment on bone density, Peterson said.
On the current launch, the mice live in what NASA calls “animal enclosure modules” and are monitored regularly by NASA astronauts. According to a NASA Web site describing the project, immune system suppression in a weightless environment could be an obstacle to long-term space travel. The Jackson Lab mice will help scientists determine whether astronauts can generate enough immune response to fight infections in space.
More specifically, Hughes-Fulford and others will look at the rodents’ Memory T cells, which could determine whether vaccination would be useful before spaceflight.
According to Peterson, the San Francisco researcher has another 16 Jackson Lab mice on land, which she will compare to the ones that experienced space.