The main objective of this PhD project is to investigate how T cells, key regulators in the cellular immune response, are affected by factors associated with the spaceflight environment (microgravity, radiation, psychological stress). A specific focus will be placed on further elucidating the signaling pathways that control T cell alterations to space flight stressors using both in vitro and in vivo models.
A second purpose of this PhD project is to develop effective countermeasures to preserve T cell activity, hence cellular immunity during space flight conditions. Thus, beyond the obvious space-related applications, the results delivered by this project could have clinical significance for patients suffering from immune disorders on Earth.
To achieve the objectives described above, the PhD candidate will use in-flight experiments on board the ISS as well as space-analogue models (e.g. Antarctic expeditions, bed rest), as a platform to analyse T cell behavior. In addition, in vitro ground-based experiments using space simulating devices will be performed at SCK•CEN. For the latter, two Random Positioning Machines are available at the Radiobiology Unit. In order to simulate cosmic radiation, experiments with low-linear energy transfer (LET) photons or high-LET neutrons can be performed at the irradiation facility available at SCK•CEN. Moreover, we will apply for high-LET beam time at international accelerator facilities (GANIL, GSI, iThemba …). Psychological stress can be mimicked by adding different stress hormones (e.g. cortisol) to cell cultures.
To investigate the molecular events behind T cell alterations to space stressors, various immune parameters will be analyzed using high-throughput technologies available within the genomic and Luminex platform at SCK•CEN: whole genome analysis of T cells, standardized monitoring of the overall immune status using the in vitro delayed-type hypersensitivity test, high-throughput quantitative analysis of inflammatory proteins (cytokines) using the Luminex Technology.