IU Team Continuing Bone Study in Space

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The official mission patch for the group. (image courtesy of Indiana University) The official mission patch for the group. (image courtesy of Indiana University)

A team of researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis will Tuesday begin the second phase of an experiment heading to space. The research project will study the effect of spaceflight on osteoblast cells, which are essential to bone development, as well as the effects of certain drugs on bone healing. Melissa Kacena, director of basic and translational research at the school, is leading the effort in collaboration with NASA and the U.S. Army.

The first phase of the project took place in 2017, when the team sent mice into space and tested them using bone-healing therapies in weightlessness. In an interview with Inside INdiana Business Reporter Mary-Rachel Redman, Kacena said the effort is able to continue due to the success of the first phase.

"Most of the time I would've said it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so clearly, for myself and one of my students, its a twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Kacena. "I think that NASA and the peer review system have validated it and the Army came to us and approached us and so they thought that the work we do here in Indiana is really world renowned, that we're doing some of the best bone healing work and that we're the right people to tackle the problem and help them out."

The cells are set to launch into space July 21, heading for the International Space Station. There, astronauts will culture the cells to help researchers see the effects of an FDA-approved bone-healing drug, as well as a new drug identified by Kacena. The university says sending the cells into space ensures the drugs can be tested without any of the natural healing that weight-bearing can have on broken bones and damaged cells. 

"When we walk, we load our bones and this is really important in both keeping your bone mass and in the bone healing process. In spaceflight, you don't have that and therefore, we can really assess how well a drug will work in humans here on Earth because we get rid of that."

In the first phase of the project, the drug was tested on mice that had undergone an orthopaedic surgery. IU says testing osteoblast cells will give researchers a better understanding on how the drug will work on humans. Kacena says, if the drugs work in space, then they'll work anywhere.

You can read more about the first phase of the project from our Life Sciences INdiana e-newsletter by clicking here.

Kacena will monitor the experiment from the Kennedy Space Center and also ensure that ground control samples are treated as identically as possible to the spaceflight samples. When the cells return to Earth, they will be fully analyzed. 

The team of researchers includes undergraduate students, medical students and post-doctoral researchers. Kacena says the ultimate goal is to gain FDA approval and begin treating patients with the bone-healing therapy, but those results could still be 15-20 years away. 

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