Science + Technology

UCLA and CASIS to collaborate on International Space Station study of possible therapy for bone loss

International Space Station

A study of rodents on the International Space Station will allow astronauts to test the ability of a bone-forming molecule to direct stem cells to induce bone formation.

UCLA has received grant funding from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space to lead a research mission that will send rodents to the International Space Station. The mission will allow astronauts on the space station and scientists on Earth to test a potential new therapy for accelerating bone growth in humans. 

The research will be led by Dr. Chia Soo, a UCLA professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery and orthopaedic surgery who is member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research. Soo also is the research director for UCLA Operation Mend, which provides medical care for wounded warriors.

The study will test the ability of a bone-forming molecule called NELL-1 to direct stem cells to induce bone formation and prevent bone degeneration. Their work will build upon previous UCLA studies that were funded by the NIH.

Other members of the UCLA research team are Dr. Kang Ting, a professor of dentistry who discovered NELL-1 and is leading efforts to translate NELL-1 therapy to humans; Dr. Ben Wu, a professor of bioengineering and dentistry who modified the NELL-1 molecule to make it useful for treating osteoporosis; and Dr. Jin Hee Kwak, an assistant professor of dentistry who will manage the study’s daily operations.

Prolonged space flights induce extreme changes in bone and organ systems that cannot be replicated on Earth.

The UCLA–ISS team, which will begin ground operations in early 2015, hopes that the study will provide new insights into the prevention of bone loss or osteoporosis as well as the regeneration of massive bone defects that can occur in wounded military personnel. Osteoporosis is a significant health issue commonly associated with “skeletal disuse” conditions such as immobilization, stroke, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injury and jaw resorption after tooth loss.

“NELL-1 holds tremendous hope not only for preventing bone loss, but one day even restoring healthy bone,” Ting said. “For patients who are bed-bound and suffering from bone loss, it could be life-changing.” 

The UCLA team will oversee the ground operations of the mission in tandem with a flight operation coordinated by CASIS and NASA.  

“A group of 40 rodents will be sent to the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory onboard the SpaceX Dragon capsule, where they will live for two months in a microgravity environment during the first ever test of NELL-1 in space,” said Dr. Julie Robinson, NASA’s chief scientist for the International Space Station program at the Johnson Space Center.

“CASIS is proud to work alongside UCLA in an effort to promote the station as a viable platform for bone loss inquiry,” said Warren Bates, director of portfolio management for CASIS. “Through investigations like this, we hope to make profound discoveries and enable the development of therapies to counteract bone loss ailments common in humans.”

“Besides testing the limits of NELL-1’s robust bone-producing effects, this mission will provide new insights about bone biology and could uncover important clues for curing diseases such as osteoporosis,” Wu said. 

“NIH has been pleased to work with NASA and CASIS to encourage the use of the International Space Station as a unique microgravity environment that can test innovative hypotheses that will benefit human health on Earth,” said Dr. Joan A. McGowan, director of the division of musculoskeletal diseases at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, part of the NIH.

“This research has enormous translational application for astronauts in space flight and for patients on Earth who have osteoporosis or other bone-loss problems from disease, illness or trauma,” Soo said. “We very much appreciate the dedicated review staff at CASIS and the Center for Scientific Review, the portal for NIH grant applications, who made this effort possible.”

The research is supported by grants from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space and National Institutes of Health. Additional funding and support are provided by the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA, the UCLA School of Dentistry, UCLA department of orthopaedic surgery and the UCLA Orthopaedic Hospital Research Center.

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