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Of Mice, Astronauts and the Elderly

Studying bone loss on the International Space Station

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Illustration by Heather Miller | University Marketing

When the privately owned aerospace company SpaceX launches a supply ship to the International Space Station next fall, researchers in the Oregon State University Skeletal Biology Lab will be keeping their fingers crossed. The cargo will include a shipment of laboratory mice destined to help the Oregon State scientists shed light on, among things, the consequences of bone and muscle loss in astronauts and elderly adults.

NASA has known for years that astronauts lose bone mass during space flight. College of Public Health and Human Sciences Professor Russell Turner, the Oregon State lab’s director, has been collaborating with the agency on this problem since the late 1970s. “The rate of bone loss in astronauts is three to four times the rate for post-menopausal women,” he says.

Space agencies have addressed the issue by tweaking exercise and diet regimes, but success has been elusive. Now, with funding from NASA, Turner and his team — CPHHS Associate Professor Urszula Iwaniec and Ph.D. student Jessica Keune — are looking at how mice expend energy under weightless conditions. Specifically, they want to know if the manner in which animals regulate body temperature affects bone loss.

While Turner aims to help NASA keep astronauts healthy during a journey to Mars and back, he sees benefits for aging adults on Earth. “The level of mortality after a bone break is really shocking,” Turner says. “This is an exquisite model for looking at the effects of skeletal disuse. If we can come up with ways that would effectively prevent muscle wasting and bone loss in an aged individual after a fracture, that will have a giant effect on quality of life.