Protecting astronauts from cosmic radiation is one of the key challenges facing future missions to Mars, and NASA believes it may have a solution. The space agency, which is planning to send explorers to the red planet in the 2030s, is considering the use of drugs that alter the DNA code of its crews.
This could repair any damage sustained from the high energy particles that will bombard the bodies of ‘Marsonauts’, giving rise to greater risks of cancer and other diseases. NASA’s acting chief technologist, Dr Douglas Terrier, made the comments ahead of an appearance at the Codex innovation summit, held in London.
One of the techniques currently under development that it is following is NMN, a compound expected to enter clinical trials after it was shown to rejuvenate elderly mice in laboratory tests.
It is also considering making more advanced tweaks or alterations to the DNA of its astronauts, although the moral implications of such a radical step will need to be addressed. This includes epigenetic modifications, which alter the way genes are read by the body without making changes to the underlying DNA code.
Using such a technique would allow Nasa’s scientists to turn up the volume on one genetic instruction or mute another. This may help to prevent cancers, dementia and other radiation related illnesses from developing, as well as boosting the body’s resilience to its effects. Speaking to The Times, Dr Terrier said: ‘We’re looking at a range of things.
‘From drug therapies, and those seem to be quite promising to more extreme things like epigenetic modification all the way to manipulation.
‘I think those have a lot of ethical consequences so they’re still in the experimental thought stages.’ Space is home to particle radiation which has sufficient energy to collide violently with the nuclei that make up shielding and human tissue.
These collisions, known as nuclear collisions, can then give rise to new particles as the incoming radiation and shielding nuclei break up. It can also damage the DNA of human cell, giving rise to diseases like cancer and dementia. Here on Earth, the planet’s magnetic field protects us from most of these particles, but astronauts will spend potentially years exposed to them.Other protective measures proposed include armoured suits, shielded plating and electromagnetic force fields, but these are unlikely to prove practical. NASA is also considering the use of an artificial intelligence programme able to diagnose diseases and perform robotic surgery in space.