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Fruit flies in space! Researchers hope to learn more about the heart through space-station experiment

The new frontier in heart research is sending fruit flies into space to study the effects of weightlessness on their teeny tiny hearts. Spaceflight, apparently, is rough on astronauts hearts, and researchers want to know more about the risks to astronauts who are sent on long space missions.

Peter Lee, MD, PhD, a Stanford heart researcher, came up with the initial plan for the project. He’s been involved with conducting space experiments on muscle atrophy in the past, and it was announced today that he's the lead scientist of one of eight teams that won a research competition to send their proposed experiments to the International Space Station.

The teams have each won free transportation for their experiments via an upcoming SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station planned for December 2013, according to Space Florida, an aerospace development company that sponsored the contest.

The goal of the fruit-fly experiment is to further understand the effects of space travel on astronaut cardiovascular systems, Lee told me. It’s a joint project between Stanford, NASA Ames Research Center and Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, California.

“There appears to be a higher rate of irregular heart rhythms, some decrease in the size or mass of the heart and a little bit of decrease in function of heart after long space flights in astronauts,” Lee said. “It’s not life threatening but very little is known. Fruit fly research is beneficial because they have a lot of the same basic genes and signal transactions at the molecular level as humans.”

Photo by sam_churchill

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