Sheba hospital in space: Exploring the final frontier of medical science

June 8, 2021

Sheba Medical Center set to launch medical research into outer space with Rakia mission.

When a world-leading hospital prepares to conduct medical research in outer space, the sky is not the limit. Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer on Monday said its new ARC Space Lab will send eight medical experiments into orbit.

The experiments will be conducted by Israel’s second space traveler, Eytan Stibbe, on Axiom Space’s first private mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in February 2022.

Stibbe, a former IAF fighter pilot and businessman who is funding the $50 million cost of his participation on the mission himself, is set to spend 10 days on the ISS, running dozens of experiments created by Israeli start-ups, universities and hospitals.

The mission, called Rakia (Hebrew for heaven), is led by the Science and Technology Ministry and the Ramon Foundation.

Sheba’s new space lab “will allow us to test many of our ideas for the future of medicine in this unique and delicate environment called space,” Dr. Harel Baris, director of the ARC Space Lab, told The Jerusalem Post.

Among the experiments will be a study of how space travel affects the ocular system in space and on Earth.

“Many space travelers experience visual impairment during the flights, and studies find changes in the retina and the optic nerve after the space flight,” Baris said. “An understanding of this is crucial for NASA in order to develop countermeasures and to ensure that in long-duration flights, like manned missions to Mars, astronauts’ vision will not be damaged.

“We have a device that is less than 2.5 kilograms that Eytan will use to take high-resolution scans of his retina over the course of the trip, providing data that has never been recorded before. Of course, this research can have groundbreaking ramifications on Earth, as well.”

Another experiment will investigate the behavior of the urinary microbiome, said Ben Boursi, one of the scientists involved with the project.

“We know that astronauts in space often suffer urinary-tract infection, urgency and other issues during and after the flight as the bacteria in the microbiome change,” he said. “This is an issue that can affect space travel in the future, and if we can understand how to prevent it, it may also help us understand related issues affecting many people.”

Other experiments will observe different aspects of the space traveler’s immune system, study the impact of microgravity on blood-brain barrier permeability and its potential for future Alzheimer’s disease treatment, assess systemic states using multispectral imaging of the anterior chamber of the eye, study T-cell activation in space and explore transcriptomic changes causing bacterial enhanced virulence and antibiotic resistance in space microgravity.

Sheba’s three-year-old ARC Center is the innovation hub of the largest hospital in Israel, which was named one of the top 10 in the world by Newsweek.

The experiments for the project were created by a team of Sheba’s top medical experts, as well as scientific experts from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, the Mayo Clinic, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Texas Tech University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

The Rakia mission will be Sheba Medical Center’s second adventure into space. Last year, it collaborated with the Israel Space Agency, the Italian Space Agency, a major university in Napoli, Italy, and Space Pharma to launch an experiment into space that examined the effects of microgravity on common bacteria that were shown to be resistant to antibiotics.

People involved with the program believe its significance reaches far beyond the scientific value.

“This fulfills a lifelong dream I have had to combine medicine and space,” said Prof. Yitshak Kreiss, director-general of Sheba Medical Center. “ I don’t know any other area of the world that inspires humanity and sparks the imagination more than space.”

Stibbe said his goal for the mission is to inspire people to challenge their natural boundaries and to help develop and promote Israeli technologies.

Israel’s first-ever astronaut was Ilan Ramon, whose historic NASA flight in 2003 ended in catastrophe when his space shuttle Columbia was destroyed upon reentering earth. Ramon was Stibbe’s commander in the IAF, and Stibbe has dedicated his mission to Ramon’s memory.

This news originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post

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