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Shuttle Discovery to bring back PLAGUE RODENTS from SPACE

Virus we all carry to be enhanced by effects of orbit

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Worryingly, plans have been announced to expose a horde of rodents to bizarre, poorly understood space plagues and bring them back to Earth for experiments.

"The space environment incorporates many factors that we know affect the immune system — microgravity, radiation, even different nutritional standards — all acting in a relatively short period of time," says Dr Roberto Garofalo, in charge of the space rodent plague experiments.

It seems that the hazards of spacegoing tend to make humans and animals less resistant to diseases. Not only do they become less resistant to regular infections such as flu or colds, but sometimes a dormant infection - carried without any ill effects, perhaps, by a majority of the human race - will become much more virulent in the strange environment of outer space.

"Since the Apollo missions, we have had evidence that astronauts have increased susceptibility to infections during flight and immediately post-flight — they seem more vulnerable to cold and flu viruses and urinary tract infections, and viruses like Epstein-Barr, which infect most people and then remain dormant, can reactivate under the stress of spaceflight," says Garofalo.

In the case of the experiments just about to begin, the idea is to infect some mice with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Almost every person on the planet is infected with this by the age of two, and in almost all of us it is no big deal. In a very few cases, however, it develops into a potentially deadly lung disease.

"We have substantial experience using mice to study immune response to RSV infection, and that will enable us to look at all the aspects of the immune responses of these mice as well as the pathological manifestations of the disease, looking at ways in which the space environment affects this respiratory infection," Garofalo said.

Sixteen space-plague murines will travel into orbit tomorrow aboard space shuttle Discovery, making its final flight. They will spend 11 days in orbit, riding in individual mouse space podules with automatic life support. Weakened by the strange conditions of space, they are expected to develop the rare and deadly malignant form of RSV - the one that could potentially wipe out humanity in a generation if it occurred more often.

Normally we would say here, well, we know what happens next. Shuttle crackup during final approach, plague-rodent podules come down somewhere, meddling kids ... PLAGUE FROM SPACE. You won't be able to turn round for bustling black-helicopter-borne biohazard-suited boffins.

However Garofalo and his colleagues actually plan to infect the mice with RSV only after they have returned to Earth, so in fact there would seem no reason to get overly excited this time. Dammit.

That said, there's hope for some truly newsworthy sci-fi-disaster style research in future. Garofalo has his eyes on the International Space Station (ISS) for when the Shuttles finally retire.

"The space station provides a unique environment for generating answers to fundamental questions about the human immune system," says the prof. "Those answers will benefit people here on Earth, and there's been a lot of interest in pursuing them." ®

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