Recent studies and experiments from several groups indicate that several, different types of bacteria (e.g., E. coli, S. enteriditis, S.typhimurium, and S. aureus) as well as the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus become many times more virulent in space than on Earth [1-7]. They also grow faster, mutate more readily, become more infectious, and become more resistant to antibiotics [1,7,8], thus posing potential hazards to astronauts and space-travelers. Already, from several space missions, particularly at the space station, astronauts have (and are) responding in unexplained ways [1,7-9]. Soviet-era astronauts in the 1960s- 1970s showed that Staphylococcus microorganisms aboard their spacecrafts demonstrated increased resistance to at least five common antibiotics [10-12]. Zea and his colleagues have found that E. coli grew 13-times faster on the space station than on Earth . Overall, such data indicate that physiologic alterations of normally, non-lethal bacteria and viruses in space may change the health of astronauts in unpredictable manners during space voyages between planets, asteroids, and stars.
Here on Earth, a disturbing trend in antimicrobial resistance of both gram-negative and gram-positive pathogens and “superbugs” has seriously complicated the treatment of many immune-compromised, hospital patients [13- 20]. Too this problem, one must add the numerous hospitalizations and deaths from contaminated meats, poultry, vegetables, seafoods, and dairy products [21-23]. Almost one million people per year are killed by bacteria and “superbugs” due to antimicrobial resistance. If we add the untold millions per year who are dying from drug-resistant tuberculosis in Africa and India, the number of deaths becomes staggering. By about 2075, the number of people dying from drug-resistant infections could reach in excess of 35 million per year. But, if contaminated astronauts and future space travelers would return to Earth harboring the “super, super-bugs”, developed in space, we could see a worldwide new series of global plagues.
For more than five decades, our laboratories have been working on a new approach to develop host-defense factors that stimulate various arms of the innate and adaptive immune systems [24-38]. To this end, we have discovered a new host-defense factor, termed “HDFx”, that is a conserved protein found in mice, rats, guinea-pigs, rabbits, dogs and sub-human primates [39-44]. More than 135 years ago, Elie Metchnikoff, the great father of immunology, hypothesized that the body, under stressful conditions, might produce powerful immune-stimulants which perforce would act on different arms of the innate immune system and serve to protect against insults and diseases . Metchnikoff’s early studies pointed to the important contributions of macrophages and phagocytic leukocytes to natural (innate) resistance against pathogenic bacteria and viruses. Over the past 40 years, considerable evidence has accumulated to support a strong relationship between the functional (physiologic) state of the microcirculation, macrophages-phagocytes, natural killer (NK) cells, the reticuloendothelial system (RES), and “pit cells” in the liver to host defense and resistance to pathogens, trauma, circulatory shock, infections, and combined injuries [39-44,46-49].
A number of experimental studies, from our laboratories, have clearly shown that HDFx is protective (to different degrees) against a variety of systemic bodily insults ranging from hemorrhage, trauma, endotoxins, a variety of lethal bacteria (e.g., E.coli, S.enteriditis, C.welchii, S.aureus, among others), combined injuries, centripetal forces, septic shock, and several infectious fungal organisms (e.g., A.fumigatus) [39-44,48,49]. Interestingly, HDFx was found to be protective under normal Earth gravity conditions against the same superbugs i.e., bacteria and fungi) found to grow abnormally and become more infectious in environments seen on the space station and under zero-gravity [39,42,43,49]. A unique attribute of HDFx is that it can accelerate wound healing , and it has protective qualities even in diseases such as nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) which often results in liver carcinomas . We have suggested that many of HDFx’s attributes make it very likely to be protective in the treatment and amelioration of hemorrhagic fever viruses .
It appears, worldwide, that many hospitalized patients die of common and once treatable diseases, such as pneumonia and blood (septic) or urinary tract infections [13-20]. Today, it is difficult to undertake major surgical procedures or chemotherapy without the use of antibiotics, as patients die afterwards from infections [13-20]. Gram-negative and fungal superbugs seem to be the major culprits in most of these patients (e.g., mutated E.coli, S.enteriditis, S.aureus, A.fumagatus) in these patient deaths [13-20]. Gram-negative bacteria appear to be more difficult to kill than gram-positive bacteria because they are protected by “double membranes”. So, in order to kill the gram-negative bacteria, most of the pharmacological approaches have been to design antibiotics to penetrate these membrane barriers. In our opinion, another more likely approach would be to engulf the bacteria (and fungi) and digest them within macrophages, Kupffer cell macrophages, phagocytic leukocytes, platelets, NK cells, and “pit cells”. But, in order for these cells to access the bacteria and fungi, we believe the microcirculation to key organs (i.e., liver, spleen, lungs) must perforce have optimal capillary blood flow and distribution. Therefore, an ideal drug or therapeutic modality would be one that could stimulate multiple arms of the innate immune system coupled to modulation of optimal (and enhanced) microcirculatory blood flows in the aforementioned key organ systems. So far, HDFx appears to be the only molecule that combines these qualities and demonstrates therapeutic attributes against several classes of “superbugs” and fungal microorganisms [39-43,48,49].
We believe the approaches outlined in the above, using HDFx or its derivatives, could be the ideal drug (s) to pretreat all astronauts and space travelers scheduled for travel to the moon, planets, asteroids, and stars in order to prevent susceptibility to enhanced virulence of bacteria, fungi, and other micro-organisms created by zero-gravity and deep-space conditions.
A major objective of our group is to secure adequate funding to elucidate the complete, complex molecular structure of HDFx and then via genetic engineering to produce large quantities of HDFx for further testing in human subjects and animals under zero-gravity and deep-space conditions to confirm our hypothesis.
Some of the original studies and thoughts needed for the discovery of HDFx and reviewed above, were initiated while some of the authors were at New York University School of Medicine and The Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yehiva University. Some of the original studies and experiments reviewed, above, were supported, in part, by unrestricted grants from several pharmaceutical companies (CIBA-GEGY Pharmaceuticals, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, The UpJohn Company, and Bayer Pharmaceuticals), Research Grants from The N.I.H, as well as anonymous donors. The authors are indebted to numerous colleagues, over many years, who helped to make our studies and background experiments possible: Professor S.G. Hershey, Professor L.R. Orkin, Professor V.E. Amassian, E.W. Burton, J.Hanley, and C.Parillo, among others too numerous to name here.
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