VCU researcher receives NASA funding to study bone, muscle loss in spaceflight

Postdoctoral researcher Michael Friedman uses the ChemiDoc Touch Imaging System to look at gel images of different genes. Photos taken by Kaitlyn Fulmore

Katrina Lee, News Editor 

Valentéa Lopez, Contributing Writer

VCU researcher Michael Friedman received funding from NASA to research the effect of genetic factors on bone and muscle loss during low-gravity spaceflight. 

Friedman was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship with NASA’s Translational Research Institute for Space Health to conduct this research. TRISH is a virtual institute that seeks to solve the challenges of human deep space exploration, according to the institute’s website. 

“In spaceflight, because of that lack of gravity that the astronauts experience, they have major losses in bone mass and muscle mass. The same thing happens on Earth if you’re bedridden for a couple months,” Friedman said. “We are interested in what causes that bone and muscle loss so we know how to develop therapies to prevent it.”

TRISH Communications and Education Officer Rachael Dempsey stated that the institute funds research and technology that will help prepare astronauts for deep space exploration.

“Dr. Friedman’s work is an example of how we might better understand the changes the body undergoes in spaceflight to protect astronaut bodies and optimize performance,” Dempsey stated in an email.

Friedman said this research is important for future NASA space missions that consist of longer durations in space, such as missions to the moon and Mars. 

“Especially for a trip to Mars, they [the astronauts] will have much longer periods of being away from Earth’s gravity, so we need long-term solutions for this,” Friedman said.

Researching muscle and bone loss and how to prevent it is important for the health of astronauts on future space missions, according to a NASA article. NASA is currently preparing for the “Artemis mission,” which will send the first woman and person of color to the moon in 2024, according to NASA’s website.

Currently, there is a lack of research regarding how genetic factors impact bone and muscle loss because of disuse, according to Friedman. 

“We are trying to learn what genes affect bone and muscle loss. We will be using genetically diverse test subjects. So which genes will be universally affected for everyone, not just certain groups of people,” Friedman said.

Postdoctoral researcher Michael Friedman recently received funding from NASA’s Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH). Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

VCU’S Department of Biomedical Engineering chair, Henry Donahue, said that Friedman is using a mouse population called “diversity outbred” in his study.

“Most scientists use one breed of mouse to do their studies because then it’s more reproducible,” Donahue said. “But this population of mice is just the opposite. The company is taking like eight strains of mice and bred them together several times over and over again so the mice are as diverse genetically as you and I.” 

Donahue said the research could possibly also apply to situations other than space travel.

“If we can identify ways to prevent bone loss in astronauts, it’s very likely those same ways might be helpful in preventing bone loss in the elderly, which is a huge problem,” Donahue said.

Friedman’s research is a one-year study that will begin in May. The study is “riskier” because no other study of this kind has used this type of mice, according to Friedman. They will immobilize one leg of each mouse, which will cause disuse of the leg. 

“It’s similar to when you break a bone and have your leg in a cast. By not using the muscle in that leg it is similar to the same effects in space flight because there is not much muscle activation due to the lack of gravity,” Friedman said.

Friedman said he expects to find that some mice carry genes that protect them from high bone loss and muscle loss during disuse. 

“We expect some mice to have very little bone loss from our intervention, and some mice with high bone loss,” Friedman said. “If we can figure out which gene is responsible for that, maybe the mice that are protected are producing some special protein that we can develop into medicine we can give astronauts to prevent bone loss.” 

NASA’s goal to increase the diversity of astronauts they are sending to space and civilian space travel are motivating factors for this study as well, according to Friedman. Companies SpaceX and Inspiration4 launched the first all civilian orbital mission in space in September 2021, according to an Inspiration4 statement.

“Ultimately, civilian space travel will do a lot more than NASA can ever do in terms of what types of age, nationality, experience, medical conditions that people have that are completely different then NASA would normally allow,” Friedman said. “So it’s important to understand the full range of how genetic diversity can affect bones and muscles in space.”

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