"Out of This World" Breakthroughs

When Astronaut Scott Kelly blasts into space in 2015, he will be a living, breathing medical experiment, helping researchers figure out the physical and psychological impact of living on the International Space Station for one full year.

What they discover could help future astronauts survive a two-year round trip to mars. But in the meantime, there is other out-of-this-world work that is helping patients with common health problems.

An ingestible pill thermometer has been developed for astronauts. Now that same ingestible pill thermometer is helping make sure athletes, troops and firefighters do not die from heat exhaustion.

A new heart pump inspired by rocket engines keeps patients waiting for heart transplants alive. Even purified water systems designed for the space shuttle are making their way into our dentist's office and there is more to come from the final frontier.

Orthopedic Surgeon Doctor Douglas Chang works with astronauts.

"About 85 percent have significant back pain," says Dr. Douglas Chang an Orthopedic Surgeon at the University of California.

In zero gravity, they grow an average of two inches when the curvature of their spines straightens out.

"They have an increased incidence of disc herniations," explains Dr. Chang.

Doctor Chang is researching why discs may be getting weaker in space. Figuring out why could help keep discs down here from hurting.

Astronauts could also be key in helping stop the effects of osteoporosis. Studies show they lose two percent of their bone mass for every month spent in zero gravity. Researchers are working on ways to stop the progression in space, which could stop the progression on earth.

A small sample of the space-inspired breakthroughs improving lives now and possibly in the future.

Can fruit flies in space improve our heart health? Researchers are sending the insects that share many of the same genetic and molecular mechanisms as humans to the international space station later this year.

They will study how space travel impacts the cardiovascular system. The work could help prevent or treat heart problems in space and on earth.

Medical Breakthroughs
Research Summary

TOPIC: "Out of This World" Breakthroughs

BACKGROUND: Close to 10 million Americans suffer from osteoporosis, a disease of the bones. Bones are living tissues that are constantly being absorbed and replaced. When the creation of new bone does not keep up with the removal of old bone, osteoporosis occurs. Bones then become very weak and can break even from a minor fall. About half of all women over 50 and one in four men will break a bone due to osteoporosis. Some people lose height and become shorter. It will affect posture and cause a person to hunch or stoop. This happens when bone in the spine break or collapse. Twenty percent of seniors who break a hip die within one year from problems related to the broken bone or from surgery to repair it. People who do survive require long-term nursing home care. Osteoporosis is responsible for millions of fractures and billions in costs. Experts predict that by 2025, $25.3 billion will be spent each year. (Source: www.nof.org).

NEW RESEARCH: While there are so many Americans affected by osteoporosis, the causes of it remain a mystery. New research is being conducted to address osteoporosis in a unique way. Postmenopausal women and aging men are not the only ones who have to worry about bone loss. Studies have found that on average, an astronaut will lose one to two percent of bone mass each month in space. Researchers believe that by solving the problem of why bone loss occurs in space, important clues will be revealed about what causes osteoporosis on Earth.

Astronauts usually experience bone loss in the lower halves of their bodies (lumbar vertebrae and legs). Also they experience a rise in calcium levels in the blood, which increases the risk of kidney stones. The suspected cause of bone loss in space is weightlessness. The pull of gravity 350 km above Earth's surface is 90 percent as strong as it is on the ground. As a result, the acceleration they feel is as little as 0.0001% of the gravitational acceleration on Earth's surface. Their bones no longer have to fight against Earth's gravitational pull. Therefore, they experience less mechanical strain to the skeletal system. Scientists believe reduced stress on bones may be responsible for the progressive bone loss in long-term residents of space, mimicking what happens to those that are confined to beds due to illness or old age.

In prolonged weightlessness, bone mass decreases due to the lack of stress on the bones that slows the formation of new bone. Fewer bone-building cells, along with a constant level of bone-destroying activity, results in a net loss of bone mass. Why weightlessness inhibits the development of osteoblasts is currently being studied at Vanderbilt University. A chemical in the development of osteoblast cells from precursor cells is an enzyme called "creatine kinase-B." Scientists are trying to figure out which molecules in the body regulate the activity of this enzyme and how those chemicals are affected by low gravity, hoping that this knowledge will point to a way to boost osteoblast formation in space. Another study at the Medical College of Georgia is investigating a possible connection between eating and bone destruction. Ingesting food causes level of a certain hormone to increase in the blood stream. This hormone can stimulate production of insulin after a meal, triggering cells to absorb glucose from the blood. Bone cells are sensitive to this hormone. Researchers have found that when this hormone attaches to "receptor" molecules on bone cells, osteoclast (bone destroying) activity goes down and osteoblast (bone creating) activity goes up. Whether hormones like this can be given to astronauts as a supplement to prevent bone degradation is unknown to scientists so far. Another study led by Dr. Douglas Chang at the University of California, San Diego has found that the discs in astronauts are becoming weaker, faster. In zero gravity, they grow an average of two inches when their spines straighten out, resulting in more disc herniation's. NASA research has already made some headway in their research. For example, their research led to the development of a fast and inexpensive tool to measure the extent of osteoporosis by analyzing the stiffness of bones. (Source: www.science.nasa.gov).


Douglas Chang, MD, PhD
University of California, San Diego
(619) 543-2542

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