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Destruction of red blood cells contributes to space anemia in astronauts

By Doug Cunningham
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Destruction of red blood cells contributes to space anemia in astronauts
"Space anemia" has been noted by doctors and researchers among astronauts since the very first human space missions, but researchers are unsure what causes the condition. File Photo by NASA/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 14 (UPI) -- Spending time in space destroys red blood cells and contributes to anemia in astronauts, according to new research published Friday.

During long-duration space flights, astronauts' bodies destroy 54% more red blood cells than they would on Earth, according to a study published in the journal Nature Medicine.

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While the condition, called "space anemia," has been noted since the first space missions, researchers say that its causes aren't all that clear.

"Having fewer red blood cells in space isn't a problem when your body is weightless," study co-author Guy Trudel said in a press release.

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"But when landing on Earth and potentially on other planets or moons, anemia affecting your energy, endurance and strength can threaten mission objectives," said Trudel, a rehabilitation physician and researcher at The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa.

The researchers analyzed data on 14 astronauts during six-month missions aboard the International Space Station and for at least one year after their return.

With the exception of one of the astronauts who didn't have blood taken at landing, the researchers found that "space anemia" resolved itself over three to four months back on Earth.

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The researchers note, however, that one year later blood destruction in the astronauts' bodies remained about 30% higher than before they'd traveled to space.

Overall, the scientists said they've shown that space flight is associated with "persistently increased levels of products of hemoglobin degradation, carbon monoxide in alveolar air and iron in serum."

While the findings may be applicable to treating blood conditions on Earth, the data also suggests that longer time in space influences -- and possibly makes worse -- this anemia.

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The article said that persistent hemolysis during space missions suggests that the longer the exposure to space the worse the anemia.

"If we can find out exactly what's causing this anemia, then there is potential to treat it or prevent it -- both for astronauts and for patients here on Earth," Trudel said.

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