mice.jpgOn Monday, researchers are sending 16 mice into space as part of an experiment to investigate the immune system’s response to zero gravity.

Millie Hughes-Fulford, director of the Laboratory for Cell Growth at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and an astronaut who flew aboard a space shuttle 19 years ago, is the principal investigator for the experiment.

“From the beginning of the U.S. Apollo moon program, we’ve known that about half of our astronauts develop suppressed immune systems, either during flight or shortly afterwards,” said Hughes-Fulford in a prepared statement.

She added that by getting to the root cause of immune system suppression, researchers might be able to apply those findings to HIV/AIDS patients and anyone who may have a compromised immune system on earth.

The 16 mice are scheduled to arrive at the space station in rodent habitats called “Animal Enclosure Modules,” and will remain there for 13-16 days at zero gravity. Another group of 16 mice will remain at earth’s gravity at the Kennedy Space Center for the same period of time.

When the mice in space return to earth, Hughes-Fulford says she will compare how the two groups react to a simulated infection.

Eventually, Hughes-Fulford said, she hopes the experiment might point the way to a new kind of therapy for people with non-functioning immune systems. But she cautions that it’s still “many, many years away.”

UCSF spokesman Steve Tokar said that Hughes-Fulford is currently in Florida preparing her mice to be sent into space.

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