University of Minnesota professor launches bone cell experiment into outer space

The U researcher is working with the International Space Station to research bone loss in space.

David Clarey

A University of Minnesota scientist has blasted his latest research project miles above the Earth’s surface, en route to the International Space Station.

Once in space, scientists at the ISS will test bone cell function to better understand why human bodies experience accelerated bone loss in space — one of the biggest health plights for astronauts, said Bruce Hammer, a University of Minnesota professor and the project’s principal investigator. The experimental effort, referred to as OsteoOmics, may also contribute to osteoporosis research, he said.

Though Hammer won’t don a spacesuit himself, he crafted the experiment, secured NASA approval and received funding from the National Institutes of Health. The project comes after three years of work, said Louis Kidder, a collaborator on the project.

“It’s a dual purpose. It’s a scientific model … and a way to optimize space flight,” Kidder said.

Over the past 10 years, Hammer has used an Earth-based simulation to research how the lack of gravity affects bone cells, he said. His experiment used a magnetic field to mimic microgravity — a state in which weightlessness occurs because the force of gravity is so weak.

The experiment is expected to begin in September, he said, and will last for about 30 days. Kidder said they expect to be ready to publish results by next June.

If the results of Hammer’s Earth-based experiment are comparable with the ISS’s findings, then his magnetic-field testing could be proven useful for preemptive testing for future space-bound, cell-based projects. Hammer said he expects the data from both experiments will be similar.

“If we can actually vet a series of experiments on Earth, you could pick the most promising one to go up to the space station,” he said.

Hammer said numerous factors come into play when trying to get an experiment co-opted by the ISS. Toxicity levels need to be monitored, crew time is sparse and finding funding can be difficult.

“It’s not like sending a package through FedEx — you really have to understand what’s allowed on the space station,” Hammer said.

As part of the process, Hammer worked with Stefanie Countryman, associate director of the University of Colorado’s BioServe Space Technologies. Countryman said her center is called a “NASA implementation partner,” which helps researchers and scientists get their projects off the ground and into space.

“Lou Kidder and Bruce Hammer are responsible for the science,” Countryman said. “We’re responsible in translating that science into a spaceflight experiment that can be done safely on the [ISS].”

The center developed the hardware and will manage operations for the experiment, Countryman said — like ensuring the cells’ environment is 5 percent carbon dioxide and has a temperature of 37 degrees Celsius.

Countryman and her center had to develop a special thawing mechanism for the bone cells, which Hammer chose to send frozen. Typically, cells are sent to space alive; however, such a state has certain limitations, Hammer said. Living cells need to stay alive long enough to reach the station for testing, and the journey there can be traumatic because of high levels of g-force and flight vibrations.

On Earth, a thawing process would consist of submerging cells into a water bath, Countryman said, but her center had to develop a system that would work in a zero gravity environment and allow the cells to be submerged in warm water without liquid floating around the ISS.

“This is an important benefit of the work we’re doing,” Hammer said. “From what I understand, future missions [are] … going to be using the system we developed.”

Kidder said securing NIH funding was one of the biggest challenges for the project. Only about 5 percent of NIH proposals are accepted, he said.

“It’s really difficult to get experiments on board,” he said. “You have to have good science and a little bit of luck to get the right reviewer.”

Hammer’s project will be aimed specifically at osteoblasts, cells that create new bone material. In the future, he hopes the project can expand to include other bone cell types like osteocytes and osteoclasts.

“Taking one cell by themselves isn’t reality. All these cells are communicating with each other all the time,” Hammer said. “That’s really the model you want to have, but before you get to that model you [have to] understand how the basic cells independently work.”

While the scientific results of the experiment are likely to provide only a small sliver of understanding when it comes to osteoporosis, Hammer is still optimistic.

“If you’re asking if there’ll be a drug made that will prevent osteoporosis? I would say no,” he said. “But it will give clues of where we should be looking to create drugs that will help prevent osteoporosis.”