Create a free profile to get unlimited access to exclusive videos, sweepstakes, and more!
For as long as we have been travelling beyond the boundaries of our planet, we have known that space has a number of unusual impacts on the human body. Loss of muscle mass and bone density were among the first changes we recognized. Production of red blood cells decreases, resulting in persistent anemia once astronauts return to Earth, and recently we learned that even the wiring of the brain is changed by the microgravity environment. Now, we also know that space alters the surface of the body as well, modifying the skin of astronauts, but we’re not sure why.
Lia Arvanitidou is the Vice President of Global Technology for Colgate-Palmolive’s Skin Health Group and is leading the PCA SKIN project to send the first private sector skin health experimental payload delivered to the International Space Station. Scientists are hoping to uncover how the environment of space impacts human skin at the cellular and genetic level in hopes of developing products and strategies capable of assisting both astronauts and Earth-bound consumers.
“The astronauts were our first inspiration for this experiment,” Arvanitidou told SYFY WIRE. “They told us that during space travel, they experience some profound effects on their skin.”
While in orbit, astronauts have reported thinning of the skin, drying, flaking, and an increased propensity for bruises and cuts. When the Skin Health Group considered the self-reported symptoms, they noticed similarities with changes that skin undergoes as it ages. It provided a novel opportunity not only to study how space changes the conditions of the skin with an eye toward future crewed missions, but also to gain a sort of timelapse view of normal skin aging.
“These changes appear to be accelerated in the microgravity environment, space will give us an accelerated view of what takes a long time to happen on Earth,” Arvanitidou said.
For the current experiment, scientists are not using any products to attempt to modify the behavior of skin in space, and they aren’t testing on the astronauts directly. Instead, the Skin Health Group worked with external partners to acquire human skin tissue samples for study aboard the space station.
Cells from both the epidermis and the dermis were grown in monolayers, one after another, then stacked to create a 3D model that mimics human skin. The Skin Health Group is very familiar with these types of tissue samples, having used them in their ground-based laboratories for years, but this is the first time they’ve been flown to space.
The tissues exist in a liquid medium, which provides nutrients to feed them and in order for the experiment to work in space. The Group also had to partner on a customized containment device to hold the samples while in orbit.
“We worked with an ISS implementation partner and these guys made a custom device for the tissues to be housed with the liquid medium throughout the duration of the experiment. We hear it’s working okay on the ISS,” Arvanitidou said.
The experiment will last a total of seven days and focus on the way the tissues change at different intervals. Astronauts aboard the station are pulling tissue sets after one, three, five, and seven days, and freezing them at negative 80 degrees Celsius until they can be returned to Earth.
The team is duplicating the experiment in their laboratory on Earth, and those samples will be compared to the Space Station samples after their return.
“Usually when we do experiments in the lab, we look at biomarkers or genes for collagen or elastin, for skin barriers and hydration. We’re hoping from this experiment to see other genes that we don’t expect. To see them change. That will really challenge our thinking. One day, I hope we can make products and test them with astronauts in space,” Arvanitidou said.
Future experiments will also look at the impact of radiation in space, something which contributes not only to aging here on Earth, but also to skin cancers. The skin is our primary line of defense against the outside world and understanding the way it changes when exposed to environments off-planet will be critical for the success of long-term missions to Mars and elsewhere. In the meantime, it might also help develop improved skincare resources here on Earth.
“We have a lot of thoughts for the future,” Arvanitidou said. “This is only the beginning.”