7 mins read 19 Jul 2022

UTS Student leading research into periods in space

University of Technology Sydney, Master's student Annabelle Jones is working with German company Inne to understand the impacts of the space environment on hormone production.

Annabelle Jones working with the Explor Microgravity Simulator at UTS. Credit: Supplied.

Future space travel will rely upon an expansive understanding of how the space environment interacts with the human body, with only 12% of the astronaut population identifying as female, little is really understood about how long-distance space travel will impact hormone production, particularly in women.   

University of Technology (Sydney) Masters Student Annebelle Jones is looking to add to that research by partnering with German home fertility monitoring company, inne. The German company have developed an at-home saliva test for measuring progesterone levels and Jones is conducting research to understand if and how microgravity impacts the device. 

Jones’ research looks at the effects of microgravity on oestrogen production. Oestrogen is one of many important hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle. Others include follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinising hormone (LH), and progesterone. Jones is working with inne to understand how microgravity impacts their device with the aim to develop a portable method for tracking hormone production in space. 

The research that Jones is conducting involves using a microgravity simulator to recreate the space environment. The hormone samples are put through a series of microgravity tests to understand if the space environment impacts them. Jones is also using 3D printing to replicate tissue architecture, which will also help to simulate the different movements that happen within the cells of the human body.   

It is well documented that the body undergoes major changes when in microgravity and that microgravity can affect the distribution of fluids in the brain and cardiovascular system. However, how microgravity impacts the complex hormonal regulation of the menstrual cycle is less understood. This is why Jones’ research has the potential to help support prolonged human spaceflight. 

"In addition to regulating the menstrual cycle, oestrogen plays a role in maintaining bone strength, skin and the cardiovascular system. and we already know that microgravity is a major hazard and damaging to these areas of the body," said Jones. 

Progesterone Measuring

The imme at home progesterone measurement device. Credit: Supplied.

Measurement of progesterone levels has become a routine part of the fertility journey but this isn’t the only reason why progesterone is important. Progesterone also can impact the body's fluid retention, moods and sleep, all of which would be important to understand on a space journey lasting many months or years.  

“When researching the menstrual cycle it is essential to have an all-around approach. I don't think there is much value in only looking at one hormone in isolation when it is 4 hormones (oestrogen, progesterone, follicle-stimulating and luteinizing hormone) working together to orchestrate the cycle. All hormones play a crucial role and you can't have one without the others. Looking at progesterone and estrogen is just the start,” said Jones

Inne has developed a non-invasive and flexible daily saliva sampling system, which via immunoassays and advanced imaging technology, track even the slightest changes in progesterone levels. These readings are sent to the users’ corresponding inne app, charting their hormone levels over the course of a cycle. 

“Annabelle’s project lit all kinds of lightbulbs in my head when she first told me! The field of space exploration is yet another glaring example of how women have been treated the same as men despite their core biological differences. Shedding more light on how the female body behaves in space hormonally without having to put female astronauts on hormonal contraception but by allowing them to track their bodies is 1000% aligned with our mission at inne to bring female hormonal health to the 21st century. So to me, this partnership was a ‘damn yeah’ from the first meeting and we cannot wait to see what is uncovered with the inne minilab and Annabelle’s research,” said Eirini Rapti, Founder and CEO of inne.

Menstruation in Space

What would the first female NASA astronauts need? This makeup kit was developed by NASA engineers although it was never flown, menstruation wasn’t high on NASA’s list of priorities. (circa 1978) Credit: NASA.

No female astronaut has made it further than low Earth orbit and with only 12% of all astronauts being female there isn’t a huge amount of research into how the space environment impacts the female reproductive cycle. Challenges around menstruation include the practicalities of managing sanitary items and bleeding in a space environment such as a spaceship where water and waste disposal are limited. 

The menstrual cycle is not just a normal bodily function, it is essential for the continuation of life. However, its adaptation to microgravity has remained an understudied area. Whilst management options such as the contraceptive pill and contraceptive implants are regularly used to suppress menstruation for current astronauts, there is some evidence that these may have a detrimental impact on other internal organs. One such impact is that certain contraceptives may increase the risk of decreases in bone density, which is already a challenge for astronauts in microgravity.   

There are also some practical challenges with using contraceptives in any future long-term space habitat. Research into hormones in wastewater has suggested they can impact fish stocks, which when it is certain humans will be using recycled water in space and on other planets should be considered, both from the perspective of humans drinking it and the impact on any potential livestock or plants. For long-duration space travel, where cargo capacity will be limited, the types of medications that will need to be available will also need to be considered, as well as what happens if any long-term medications are lost or damaged during the mission.

With both the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA looking at including how to include astronauts with disabilities, it is certain that not every menstruating astronaut will be able to take contraceptives. Understanding how microgravity and the space environment impact the menstruation cycle will be critical to ensuring equal access to space as we move towards the colonisation of other planets. 

“NASA is looking at having the first woman on the moon, and potentially the first person on Mars is going to be female, so there needs to be research into how it's going to impact their bodies. Obviously, you can't just go to Mars tomorrow, it's a long old journey,” added Jones.

Creating Simulated Microgravity

The EXPLOR Space Technologies Microgravity Simulator Credit: EXPLOR Space Technologies.

Sydney-based company EXPLOR Space Technologies are also supporting the project and are providing the EXPLOR simulator, which is one of the only commercially available microgravity simulators available for pharmaceutical research. Their specially designed simulator creates an environment that replicates the same gravity felt aboard the international space station.   

“EXPLOR Space Technologies is excited to support such critical research in supporting women in space, especially in the understanding and development of core technologies that will be critical for current and future human space missions. This research is a first stepping stone towards uncovering key questions in human developmental biology and we are privileged that our microgravity technologies can be utilised for such important research and hope this is the beginning of more partnership between industry and research,” said Dr Joshua Chou, CEO and Co-Founder of EXPLOR Space Technologies.

Jones’ research is bringing together these two technologies to be able to develop a system that has the potential to enable astronauts to monitor their progesterone levels in real-time and aid the advancement of space medicine. 

“I hope to kind of set the foundation for women's health in space,” Jones concluded about her research.