On July 21, 2011, the American space shuttle program came to an official end when shuttle Atlantis rolled to a stop at NASA’s
One such experiment, undertaken during the final shuttle mission, studied the loss of bone and muscle mass in a micro-gravity environment as well as a therapy that might be able to arrest that degeneration. Mary Bouxsein, PhD, a scientist in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s (BIDMC) department of Advanced Orthopedic Studies and Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at Harvard Medical School, served as the co-principal investigator of the study, leading a team of researchers from BIDMC, Amgen, BioServe Space Technologies, and the University of North Carolina. The study was funded by NASA’s Ames Research Center.
The research will not only yield insights into how astronauts can address a fundamental problem of long space flights, it could also lead to a greater understanding and potential prevention of bone loss for aging or diseased individuals here on Earth.
“Mechanical loading is required to maintain musculoskeletal health,” explains Dr. Bouxsein. “On earth, our bones experience mechanical forces from being pushed and pulled by muscles that work against gravity to keep us upright and moving around, as well as from the impact of our body weight against the ground. These forces are much lower in micro-gravity environments and, as a result, the rate of bone loss among astronauts is about 10 times greater than that seen in postmenopausal women. So, while this research is designed to better understand and prevent skeletal fragility among astronauts, it may also tell us a great deal about the future potential of this novel therapy to improve bone strength here on earth, in both older persons and in individuals with reduced physical activity due to various clinical conditions, such as stroke, spinal cord injury or cerebral palsy.”
You can watch Dr. Bouxsein explain her team’s work leading up to the shuttle launch in the video below.
One of Dr. Bouxsein’s collaborators was Dr. Seward Rutkove, also of
Dr. Rutkove’s lab will be conducting studies over the next six months on the two specimens they received from the experiment in order to learn more about the progression of muscle atrophy that accompanies disuse. Rutkove is the developer of electrical impedance myography (the work for which he won our million-dollar prize), a process which compares the flow of an electrical current through healthy muscle and muscle that has degenerated as ALS progresses. You can read more about EIM technology in an earlier blog post here.
There is currently no reliable diagnostic test for ALS. However, by making a distinction between the muscle degeneration that occurs due to illness or lack of use (accentuated in this experiment by the micro-gravity of a low Earth orbit) and atrophy that stems from a neurogenic disorder, electrodiagnostic tests might be able to tell scientists more about the nature of ALS in a given patient sooner which could improve the impact of potential therapies.