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Fruit flies headed to the International Space Station to study the effects of weightlessness on the heart

As previously reported on Scope, Stanford heart surgeon Peter Lee, MD, PhD, and collaborators at NASA Ames Research Center and the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute recently won a research competition allowing them to study the effects of weightlessness on the hearts of fruit flies.

Later this year, Lee and team members will send a cohort of fruit flies-turned-astronauts to the U.S. National Lab on the International Space Station in orbit roughly 240 miles above the Earth. The ultimate goal of the Space Florida-sponsored project is to further understand the effects of space travel on astronaut cardiovascular systems.

Today in Inside Stanford Medicine, my colleague describes how Lee's passion for both space and medicine compelled him to propose the project:

Lee was working in his cubicle at the Falk Building, in between heart/lung transplantation surgeries, surrounded by his space memorabilia — a photo of himself shaking hands with astronaut Neil Armstrong, a screensaver of the Space Shuttle Endeavour atop a 747 airliner — when he heard about the contest, and came up with the idea for the experiment.

"I was looking for something related to heart disease and heart function that could fit in the 10-by-10-by-10-centimeter cube that they provide for the experiment to sit in," Lee said.


He found researchers at NASA who had experience sending fruit fly experiments into space and, at Sanford-Burnham, others who had conducted heart experiments on fruit flies. Lee contacted both, and they bought in to the idea. Together they wrote up a proposal and won some room on the rocket for their fruit flies.

While Lee loves his earthbound work as a surgeon, he has supplemented his extensive education with skills that could prove handy if he traveled into space and said he would jump at the chance to accompany the fruit flies when they blast off aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. "Oh my gosh, yes, I want to go with," he said flashing a big smile.

Previously: Space: A new frontier for doctors and patients and Fruit flies in space! Researchers hope to learn more about the heart through space-station experiment
Photo by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

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