EarthSky spoke with biomedical engineer Ted Bateman of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. With support from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, he’s testing therapies to help protect the bones of astronauts in space from radiation.
Ted Bateman: Two comprehensive papers have been published describing the amount of loss over the four to six months on Space Station. You’ve got astronauts, on average, losing one to two percent per month, which is very rapid, compared to causes for osteoperosis here on Earth.
In other words, said Bateman, astronauts in space can lose about as much bone in a month as an average senior citizen loses in a year here on Earth. Scientists have long known one cause of bone loss is the near zero-gravity of space. Using microcomputed tomography in studies on mice, Bateman found that space radiation rapidly attacks bone health.
Ted Bateman: From that, we’ve decided to initiate a couple of clinical trials to see if what we’re observing in mice is real in human cancer patients. Based on those preliminary data, we’re seeing a very rapid decline in bone mass in cancer patients on the order of as fast as what astronauts experience from microgravity.
Bateman said he’s hopeful that his research on drug therapies for the bone degenerative disease osteoporosis will one day help both astronauts and cancer patients here on Earth.
Ted Bateman : The research that we’re doing on the Space Station now and the ground-based research that we’re doing to support astronauts really does benefit people here on Earth. We will have an impact on cancer patients receiving radiation therapy, and this is important research that needs to be done.
Astronauts on long space missions face a risk to their bone health, said Bateman, from radiation.
Ted Bateman: We’ve known for quite a while, since the 1970s and the Skylab missions, that astronauts are going to lose bone on these extended missions. Comprehensive work has been done to identify the amount of loss – about one to two percent per month, which is approximately five times the rate that post-menopausal women lose bone here on Earth. And we know that this will cause a decline in bone strength of approximately three percent per month. When astronauts return, the recovery is incomplete. On extended missions, beyond six months up to three years, such as on a Mars mission, this loss is going to be substantial.
Our thanks to the National Space Biomedical Research Institute – innovations for health in space and on Earth.