IUSM orthopaedic surgery partners with NASA and Department of Defense

July 23, 2015

The IU School of Medicine Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense have a mutual interest that may improve the quality of life during long space flights and research on the International Space Station.

Researchers at the three institutions are partnering to study bone regeneration and to make new discoveries in bone regeneration for osteoporosis, bone healing for fractures and bone disorders.

This project is under the leadership of Melissa Kacena, Ph.D., associate professor of orthopaedic surgery, August M. Watanabe Translational Scholar and Showalter Scholar. Todd McKinley, M.D., professor of orthopaedic surgery, Tien-Min Gabriel Chu, D.D.S., Ph.D., associate professor of restorative dentistry and orthopaedic surgery and interim associate dean for research at the IU School of Dentistry, and their research teams complete the IU collaborators for the project, Bone Healing in Space.

IU School of Medicine researchers from the Bone Healing in Space team, including Melissa Kacena, front row second from left, are working with NASA and the DOD. | Photo By IU SCHOOL OF MEDICINE DEPT OF ORTHOPAEDIC SURGERY

The mission will launch on Feb. 3 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and travel to the International Space Station via the SpaceX Falcon spacecraft. IUSM orthopaedic researchers will manage the research project from Kennedy Space Center while monitoring the ground control studies and working with astronauts aboard the space station to perform the laboratory work. The results from this mission could prove extremely beneficial both in the medical field and space life sciences.

Long-Term Space Flight

Astronauts in spaceflight experience bone loss at an alarming rate. In fact, during a single month, an astronaut in space will lose the same amount of bone that someone on Earth with osteoporosis loses in an entire year. While experts have some understanding of how this happens, the exact causes remain unclear, and therefore this research could provide an understanding of the causes of bone loss in space and the potential medical needs of astronauts during long-term spaceflight missions.

Fracture-Healing for Military and Beyond

Extreme bone injuries, like those military personnel receive from explosives, can be so severe that amputation is the only treatment. Through this bone-healing research, a novel therapy will be examined that could potentially enhance bone regeneration and create a better alternative treatment to amputation. The weightlessness of space research also better simulates typical bone loss due to disuse. Today, it is common for patients with severe leg bone injuries to have limited or no weight bearing on their injured leg for extended amounts of time. This lack of weight bearing can be detrimental to normal bone healing.

Preparing for and managing a research mission in space is expensive. The total costs to the IU investigators for the February 2016 launch is expected to exceed $300,000 and includes expenses for the training of astronauts for research work and regulatory hurdles. The majority of the expenses -- which will exceed several million dollars -- are being funded by NASA and the DOD. Through grants and generous donations, a portion of the IU mission expenses is already funded, but additional support is needed. IUSM faculty and staff are invited to join the mission with a gift to the Spaceflight and Beyond Research Fund by contacting Georgia Strickland Sinclair, IUSM gift development office.

This is just one of the two missions to space that are being conducted. In early 2017, additional research will be performed at the International Space Station on bone cells and their responsiveness to different bone-healing drug treatments.

To learn more about these missions and the positive impacts they could have, visit the research website and subscribe to the blog