Medical Moment: Preserving bones on earth and in space

Published: Jul. 21, 2023 at 5:57 PM EDT
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(WNDU) - Approximately 10 million Americans have osteoporosis, and another 44 million are at risk of getting it.

One in two women and one in four men will break a bone during their lifetime.

Finding new treatments to help strengthen bones is crucial. That’s why one researcher is focusing on just that, making bones stronger, and she’s not only doing it in the lab but also up in space.

Astronaut Frank Rubio didn’t realize he would be making history when he left for a six-month mission to the International Space Station. But delays kept him in orbit for 371 days, logging the longest time spent in space than any other U.S. astronaut.

“Being in microgravity is a lot of fun, mostly because you get to float around,” Rubio said.

But all that floating takes a toll on your body, especially your bones. Previous research has shown astronauts lose decades’ worth of bone mass in space. University of Central Florida researcher Melanie Caothup studies bones.

“I’m really intrigued in developing new ways of boosting bone repair, but when it’s under challenging conditions,” Coathup explained.

The NIH reports that nearly all cancer patients who undergo radiation are at an increased risk for bone loss and fractures.

“The damage that ionizing radiation causes to bone, it can be quite significant. And there’s no therapy out there at the moment that can help to protect the bone,” Coathup continued.

Coathup helped develop a synthetic bone substitute material called inductigraft, which boosts bone repair and regeneration, and is currently developing a “nano enzyme” that helps protect cells against DNA damage caused by radiotherapy.

“How do we get that bone repair response to really ramp up and heal?”

That answer may help keep bones strong whatever extreme circumstances they may face.

Coathup is also looking at how fluid changes in the bones impact astronauts in microgravity. Finding out the answers may be critical, considering we are in a space race to land a person on Mars by the late 2030′s.

That trip will take a minimum of seven months to reach the planet.