The Sky is No Longer the Limit: Medicine and space

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While space travel and exploration of unknown worlds have largely influenced the media over the past century, many people still lack interest in this body of research and sometimes view such endeavors as a waste of time. After all, Earth has a significant amount of problems on its own. However, aerospace endeavors not only provide opportunities to explore unknown places but also to investigate medical phenomena that could provide treatments for disorders on our planet.  

Due to space’s near-zero gravity, also referred to as microgravity, astronauts’ bones and muscles atrophy during their voyages. According to research published by NASA, astronauts in space can lose up to 20% muscle mass in under two weeks. Astronauts risk damage to the eyes and ears, as well as radiation exposure. While these problems have hindered progress in outer space, they also provide a new playground for research, allowing scientists to conduct experiments in microgravity conditions. 

UConn Health scientists Dr. Emily Germain-Lee and Dr. Se-Jin Lee have taken advantage of this opportunity by sending mice into space to test a new drug that may have the potential to strengthen muscle and bone. The therapeutic targets not only myostatin but also activin, a protein that plays a part in both muscle and bone growth. Patients with muscle disorders such as muscular dystrophy are often wheelchair-bound and suffer from bone atrophy as a result. By the same token, those with bone diseases/disorders cannot be physically active and experience loss of muscle mass. The ability to test promising drugs by accelerating conditions that introduce stress on muscle and bone (such as microgravity) thus have the potential to impact many people with a variety of disorders such as cancer, brittle bone disease and any condition that requires bedrest. 

In addition to studies on mice, space provides an ideal environment for other experiments that have the potential to develop life-saving therapeutics. Endothelial cells, which line the inside of lymphatic and blood vessels, grow more three-dimensionally in space (rather than growing in a flat petri dish), allowing scientists to study more tissue properties. In addition, cells age more rapidly in orbit, allowing researchers to study the cells’ life cycle and molecular profile over time with reduced waiting time. This is incredibly helpful when studying diseases such as osteoporosis, which takes years to develop on Earth. 

Protein experiments also benefit from a microgravity environment. Rather than being restricted to a two-dimensionally plate, proteins are able to form three-dimensional crystals structure when developed in space. The crystals are able to assemble due to a lack of convective currents characteristic of microgravity. They give scientists better clues about the proteins’ structure, allowing for the development of better drugs and potential cures for diseases. According to Serena Auñón-Chancellor, these studies have allowed researchers to better understand the structure of beta-amyloid protein, which is involved in many neurodegenerative conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease

The future of science relies on the ability of different disciplines to work with each other and brainstorm new ways to combine techniques, producing outcomes impossible for one field alone. While aerospace engineering, structural biology and medicine may not appear to have much in common, advances in one field can be used to synergistically benefit the others. Aerospace physicians, or doctors that protect the health of astronauts in space, are rising in number due to the physiological pressures of microgravity on the human body, allowing more astronauts to leave Earth and come back safely. At the same time, space provides an environment for the advancement of many therapeutics that have previously been studied in a very traditional laboratory setting. The overlap of these fields is producing results of great promise, a trend that other disciplines should view as an example of true science: Curiosity, creativity and collaboration. 


Katherine Lee is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached at katherine.lee@uconn.edu

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