With work currently underway by major space agencies such as NASA to send a manned mission to Mars, the potential for space exploration has deepened.
Yet now, even before the first human has gone beyond the moon, some potentially life-threatening problems have been discovered that could dash hopes of establishing a colony on the Red Planet.
Using mice transplanted with human stem cells, the study has shown that there was a notable increase in the appearance of leukaemia cells when the subjects were exposed to the same level of radiation that would be experienced by astronauts who would travel to Mars.
A constant bombardment of this radiation would have astronauts sick before they even arrived after the three-year journey.
The findings, which were published in the journal Leukemia, were "troubling," according to Christopher Porada, an associate professor of regenerative medicine and a senior researcher on the project.
The research, which was sponsored by NASA, proved that space travel could pose some serious health risks.
"Our results are troubling because they show radiation exposure could potentially increase the risk of leukemia in two ways," Professor Porada said.
"It is rewarding to use our expertise in stem cells to help NASA evaluate the potential health risks of space travel and hopefully develop strategies to address them," he added.
The goal of the research was to look at the effects of simulated solar energetic particles (SEP) and galactic cosmic ray (GCR) radiation on human hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs). There is less than 0.1 percent of the bone marrow in adults within these stem cells, but they produce many types of blood cells that circulate throughout the body and work to transport oxygen as well as fight infection.
Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine scientists then performed lab and animal studies to define the impact of the exposure.
They found that the levels of exposure dramatically affected the health and function of the HSCs.
"Radiation exposure at these levels was highly deleterious to HSC function, reducing their ability to produce almost all types of blood cells, often by 60-80 percent," Professor Porada said.
"This could translate into a severely weakened immune system and anemia during prolonged missions in deep space," he added.
Mr. Porada said that the results have shown that radiation exposure could potentially increase the risk of leukemia in two ways.
"We found that genetic damage to HSCs directly led to leukemia. Secondly, radiation also altered the ability of HSCs to generate T and B cells, types of white blood cells involved in fighting foreign 'invaders' like infections or tumor cells. This may reduce the ability of the astronaut's immune system to eliminate malignant cells that arise as a result of radiation-induced mutations."
The researchers have said that they will continue to look at this work and will also aim to establish how they can make space travel as safe as possible for all concerned.