Health Team

UNC space-shuttle experiment tackles bone loss

Posted July 6, 2011 5:30 p.m. EDT
Updated July 6, 2011 6:39 p.m. EDT

— NASA's last space shuttle mission is set to blast off Friday carrying a mice experiment that University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers hope will help astronauts and people with osteoporosis.

UNC biomedical engineer Ted Bateman is sending his fourth mice crew aboard a space shuttle. This experiment aboard the shuttle Atlantis tackles bone loss, which is experienced by astronauts who spend extended periods in micro-gravity.

"The body is very efficient," Bateman said. "It senses that it doesn't need the bone mass that it currently has, so bone is removed at a very rapid rate."

In humans, the structural effects of bone loss can be seen after two or three months in a weightless environment, he said.

"A benefit of the animal models is that we'll see (the effects) during the 12-day space flight," Bateman said.

The mice will also be administered an experimental antibody drug from the biotech company Amgen, which is designed to block the effects of increased sclerostin levels in the body that cause bone loss.

The drug could help astronauts in long-term stays in space and people suffering from osteoporosis on Earth.

"It fits an unmatched need within osteoporosis treatment, in that it promotes bone formation rather than just suppressing bone resorption," Bateman said.

Generally, the best that an osteoporosis medicine can do is prevent or slow down bone loss. One osteoporosis therapy builds bone formation, but it requires frequent injections and is very expensive.

Bones can also be strengthened by regular exercise, including weight training, and eating calcium-rich foods, such as dairy products and dark, leafy, green vegetables.

Although Atlantis' flight will mark the end of the U.S. space shuttle program, scientists will still be able to send animal experiments to the International Space Station, Bateman said. The next launch vehicles will be unmanned, so animal experiments might be able to stay in space longer.