A spin in space without nausea


IRELAND HASN’T got a space programme, but Irish scientists can still be involved in space-age innovations. And if a Limerick woman working in the US succeeds in her research, astronauts everywhere will benefit, reports HELEN GALLAGHER

Deirdre Fox has joined Nasa to work on ways to counter motion sickness in astronauts. Originally from Ballylanders, Co Limerick, she is based at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

She and principal investigator Dr Daniel Woodard are involved in a project called “The Evaluation of Counter-Measures for Motion Sickness”.

She completed a BSc in analytical chemistry with quality assurance in Cork Institute of Technology, before being awarded a 2007 IRCSET (Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology) scholarship for her PhD at Dublin City University.

“Working on developing novel analytical methods within the bioanalytical, chemistry and diagnostics group in DCU, under Dr Gillian Mahon, school of chemical sciences, has given me great opportunities,” says Fox.

Her area of research was similar to that of work being carried out at the Kennedy Space Centre, something which encouraged her to pursue a research opportunity there.

“I worked with Dr Lanfang Levine in Nasa to formulate a research project we were both interested in, and approached the Fás Science Challenge, which was happy to provide funding for the project, which gave us a great chance to collaborate,” she says.

“I came to Florida last October under the Fás scheme. They have four science and three engineering students here at Kennedy Space Centre, and 42 in total throughout the US. It is a fantastic scheme which gives great opportunities to Irish science and engineering students,” she says.

Fox originally planned to spend six months with Nasa, but has stayed on to complete her work with the team on the anti-motion sickness drug, scopolamine, which astronauts use during space travel. “Scopoderm patches are stuck behind the astronaut’s ear and slowly release the scopolamine drug into the bloodstream over three days – but the side-effects can be a big problem in space,” Fox explains.

Using a full patch can cause side-effects such as dry mouth, dizziness and nausea, something which Fox has experienced herself, having taken part in one of the “zero-gravity” flights that are used to train the astronauts. “The astronauts prefer to cut the patches in half when using them, as this seems to lessen the side-effects,” she says. “Dr Woodard was keen to know whether cutting the patch in half was changing the level of drug in the bloodstream.”

This, however, was not a simple matter, given that they wanted to mimic space conditions while testing for levels of the drug down to as low as one millionth of a millionth of a gram of drug in less than a drop of blood.

For the tests, the team put subjects into a spinning chair which could also be tipped in other directions while rotating, a motion which mimics conditions during space travel. They were given a half-patch of the drug and then blood samples were collected at different times during the test to gauge how much of the drug had reached the bloodstream.

“We used mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography to characterise and measure the level of drug in the bloodstream,” says Fox. “Hopefully the findings may be used to eliminate the side-effects of this motion-sickness treatment for astronauts, so that makes the work we do have real meaning.

“I feel I have learnt a lot over the past six months. The experience and skills I have acquired in method development, handling biological samples, operation and maintenance of state-of-the-art analytical equipment and instrumental troubleshooting have been beyond my expectations.

“I feel so fortunate for being given the chance to work in a state-of-the-art laboratory among some of the world’s most esteemed scientists in the field of life science. Learning new skills in such an environment has proven enjoyable and beneficial.”