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May 31, 2022

By Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science staff

On Friday, April 8, the first all-civilian flight to the International Space Station lifted off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Mayo Clinic research was on board this historic mission to space. Larry Connor, a Mayo Clinic benefactor and CEO of The Connor Group, made history as he piloted the flight. He and his crew took part in research projects for Mayo Clinic during the 10-day Axiom Space flight.

"We are the first all-private crew that will launch from U.S. soil when we go to the International Space Station," Connor said in the days leading up to the mission.

Connor brought Mayo Clinic research on board, and he was one of the civilian astronauts studied by Mayo Clinic scientists and researchers during the 10-day mission.

Examining aging in space

One goal of the research is to identify signs of senescence in the crew. Senescence is a process where cells age and stop dividing but don't die, so they build up in tissues throughout the body. Senescent cells can contribute to a number of diseases and features of aging, ranging from heart disease to frailty, dementia, osteoporosis, diabetes, and kidney, liver and lung diseases.

The research project is being led by James Kirkland, M.D., Ph.D., director of Mayo Clinic's Robert and Arlene Kogod Center on Aging.

What the researchers learn may point to the potential use of agents called senolytics, which can selectively remove senescent cells. Dr. Kirkland and his researchers will take samples of Mr. Connor's and his crew's blood and other fluids to look for markers of senescent cell burden before and after their flight. They also are taking normal human cells in dishes on the mission to see if the cells become senescent in space.

Safeguarding the heart

Also on board for the mission will be research from Andre Terzic, M.D., Ph.D., that aims to advance knowledge about how to better safeguard the heart for space travel.

Mayo student researchers experience Axiom project start to finish

Many student researchers in Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences have had the opportunity to contribute to both research projects involved in the Axiom space flight.

Utkarsh Tripathi, student in the Molecular Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics Ph.D. program at Mayo Clinic, joined the Axiom research project in November 2021 and has been involved in experimental planning, design, and cell types to be analyzed for this project. 

He studied bioengineering at Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra for his undergraduate degree and, later in Germany, did research on mitochondrial biology (a hallmark of aging) at Gene Center, Munich, Germany. He then joined Dr. Kirkland’s laboratory at Mayo Clinic to work on cellular senescence, and how it could be targeted to promote healthy aging.

For more than a year, Armin Garmany, M.D.-Ph.D. student in the Regenerative Sciences track, has been involved both the clinical and cell-based components of the project focused on studying the impact of space travel on cardiovascular health.

Opportunity and responsibility

Larry Connor says the space mission benefits all mankind. Two Mayo Clinic research projects are part of the mission.

"What better way could you give back than doing truly inspirational and potentially groundbreaking research at one of the best research centers in the world, which would be right here at Mayo Clinic," Connor says.

Connor and the other civilian astronauts Michael Lopez-Alegria, Eytan Stibbe and Mark Pathy, boarded the International Space Station on Saturday, April 9. During their 10-day mission, the crew spent eight days on the International Space Station conducting scientific research. The crew conducted more than 25 different experiments while aboard the space station.

version of this story appears on the Mayo Clinic News Network.

Armin Garmany sets up assay samples with a pipette and microtube in the Marriott Heart Disease Lab
Armin Garmany, M.D.-Ph.D. student in the Regenerative Sciences track, sets up assay samples with a pipette and microtube in the Marriott Heart Disease Lab