Squirrels in space? Fauna Bio snags NASA grant to study hibernation in orbit

Microgravity laboratory will allow the protective effects of hibernation to be assessed in the International Space Station.

Longevity biotech Fauna Bio announced today that one of its researchers has been awarded a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) grant to study mammalian hibernation in space. The project aims to unravel the mysteries surrounding hibernation in space and the potential implications for safeguarding human health during extended space missions.

Fauna, which recently signed a multimillion-dollar obesity collaboration with Lilly, aims to harness comparative genomics from “extreme mammals”, leveraging insights from animals capable of surviving extreme conditions to identify potential drug targets for human disease treatment and prevention.

The company revealed that senior research physiologist Dr Ryan Sprenger has received an early-stage grant for his project, “A revolutionary approach to interplanetary space travel: Studying Torpor in Animals for Space-health in Humans,” or, amusingly, “STASH” for short.

Fauna Bio gets NASA grant to send squirrels to space
Fauna Bio researcher Ryan Sprenger.

The NIAC grant supports Sprenger’s quest to answer a pivotal question: Can hibernation serve as a protective mechanism against microgravity-induced bone and muscle loss during space travel?

Hibernation involves a state of reduced metabolic rate called torpor, potentially offering benefits such as muscle and bone preservation and radiation protection. However, the lack of space-based infrastructure for studying torpor in laboratory rodents has hindered understanding of hibernation in space and its potential applications for humans.

In a statement, Sprenger said that space travel exposes astronauts to a “multitude of hazards.”  

“Both microgravity and space radiation can take a toll on the human body,” he said. “Hibernation, with its profound physiological changes, could offer a revolutionary solution. The remarkable phenotype of mammalian hibernation confers unique physiologic and metabolic benefits that are being actively investigated for potential human health applications on Earth.”

The NIAC grant will facilitate the creation of a cutting-edge microgravity hibernation laboratory designed to overcome this limitation, allowing hibernating mammals to be assessed in the unique microgravity environment of the International Space Station.

The STASH project’s short-term goals encompass exploring the basic science of hibernation in microgravity, paving the way for potential applications that could benefit human health, particularly in understanding hibernation’s protective effects on bone and muscle.

Longer term, the project aims to translate the research findings into practical applications, including testing bioactive molecules that mimic hibernation’s transcriptional signatures and evaluating methods for inducing synthetic torpor, assessing its ability to provide similar protective effects.

Fauna is collaborating on the STASH project with BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“This project will address critical gaps in our understanding of hibernation in space and its impact on bone and muscle loss,” said BioServe researcher Dr Tobias Niederwieser.