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Biomedical Engineering Mouse Experiment on the Last Space Shuttle Flight

Dr. Ted Bateman and his research team will be at the Kennedy Space Center for the last space shuttle launch of the NASA program as Atlantis departs for its final mission into the Earth’s orbit. Not only is this a milestone in the history of space exploration, but also for Dr. Bateman who has been involved as an investigator in numerous spaceflight studies. Once again he and his team have another research project manifested on this the final mission of STS-135. In addition to the human crew of this historic flight, Atlantis will be host to thirty of its smallest passengers; mice that might help humans one day travel far beyond the moon. These mice are the integral part of Dr. Bateman’s joint North Carolina State / University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Biomedical Engineering research on bone and muscle health in micro-gravity.

Scheduled to launch on June 28, the last space shuttle mission will provide a hectic 12-day climax to years of research and months of painstaking preparation for an experiment meant to reveal strategies to protect future astronauts from bone and muscle loss during extended exposure to micro-gravity. Rapid bone loss, an accelerated osteoporosis, results from removing gravitational loading. Such exposure will be unavoidable for interplanetary missions such as a round-trip to Mars. BME graduate student and North Carolina Space Grant research fellow Laura Smith will devote weeks to planning for this mission, including caring for the mice for the experiment in part because she knows she’s participating in a part of history. “It was exciting to participate in a similar experiment 4 years ago, and I am thrilled that we get one last opportunity on STS-135.”

Bateman Lab at NASA
Dr. Ted Bateman with research team in front of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center.

Free Fall on Four Feet

Though the shuttle program ends with Atlantis’s June fight, research exploring possible solutions to the challenges of long-distance space travel is gearing up to help achieve future space flight milestones such as humans visiting Mars and other bodies far beyond the Moon. NASA and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute provide research funding for Bateman’s lab to study the negative effects of microgravity and space radiation on the skeletal system in order to gain understanding why the space environment causes the rapid loss of bone mass, and ultimately to develop therapies/countermeasures. Bateman’s research project with colleagues at the University of Colorado, Harvard University and the Cleveland Clinic, is exploring how a 12-day stay in micro-gravity effects mouse bone tissue at the molecular level, studying changes in protein expression by the load sensing osteocytes within bone tissue.

Earth’s gravity, via the mechanical stresses it induces on animal bone and muscle tissue, is responsible for triggering signaling at the cellular level essential for musculoskeletal health. Osteocytes are the bone cells primarily responsible for communicating changes in load to other cells that affect bone mass. The lack of load stresses experienced in microgravity interferes with osteocyte communications disrupting normal maintenance and growth of these tissues. Stays in microgravity commensurate with average postings on the International Space Station are well know to cause serious adverse musculoskeletal health effects. Without a solution to this problem the months and years spent in micro and reduced gravity required for a round trip to Mars would be life threatening to the astronaut explorers.

“Astronauts lose bone much faster than any cause for osteoporosis here on Earth,” Bateman says. “Bone cells adapt quickly to the ‘new normal’ of low bone stress in microgravity by reducing bone density, but this is a problem when astronauts return to Earth, and will be a problem when they eventually land on Mars. We use spaceflight as a model for accelerated osteoporosis to not only help astronauts but to better understand how to prevent osteoporosis here on Earth.”

When the space shuttle is in low Earth orbit the experimental group of mice experience a sensation of weightlessness in microgravity. Almost immediately after entering orbit, bone cells will sense the reduced loads and begin the process of adapting to the low stress environment.

The joint North Carolina State / University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Biomedical Engineering project is part of a long-term collaboration with the BioServe Space Technologies center in the Aerospace Engineering and Sciences department at the University of Colorado. This is the fourth spaceflight experiment with animals that Bateman has been an investigator on. Other flights include STS-77 (1996), STS-108 (2001) and STS-118 (2007).

“See How They Run”

Once in space, astronauts will observe the mice daily. Past flights have shown that the mice are remarkably active while awake, ‘running and floating’ around the wire mesh cage that is their habitat. They have access to food and water any time they want and it appears they thrive in microgravity. Like astronauts, when they return to Earth’s gravity they move slowly and cautiously, adapting to the new loads placed on their bodies.

Bateman animal habitat
Dr. Ted Bateman removing mice from the animal habitat from a similar experiment flown on STS-108 in 2001. The mice had just returned from 12 days in orbit.

After the flight, the research team of investigators from NCSU/UNC, the University of Colorado, Harvard and the Cleveland Clinic will analyze bone for changes in strength and density in addition to alterations in bone cell activity and protein communication between these cells.

Although being such an important part of the final shuttle flight is an honor, tight funding has left NASA supporting this flight on a shoestring budget, meaning that the research team is looking to find other sources of support to help them lay the foundations for future human exploration of space. But Dr. Bateman is confident this challenge will be overcome. “NASA and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute have been very good to me. I spent the summer between my Junior and Senior years in undergrad at a summer research program at Kennedy Space Center (Space Life Science Training Program). Everything I am doing now can be traced back to that summer. NASA supported my graduate training and NSBRI has supported my lab’s research for many years. They have helped us make discoveries that we have taken in to clinical trials here at UNC.” Bateman knows there are many more spaceflight enthusiasts like him and would be excited to talk with anyone with the philanthropic ‘right stuff’ to help support his STS-135 and other research.

UNC Health Care Press Release with Video:

Earth/Sky interview to describe Bateman Lab research in more detail:

Space Shuttle Atlantis