University of Minnesota professor sends bone cells experiment to International Space Station

Monday, July 18, 2016

A University of Minnesota researcher is part of an out-of-this-world experiment that launched bone cells aboard SpaceX-9 earlier this morning to the International Space Station (ISS). The experiment will test the accuracy of a device designed to simulate microgravity with the goal of better understanding how gravity affects bone cell function.

“Living systems on earth have evolved under the influence of gravity for billions of years. Studying life in a reduced gravity environment has the potential of revealing changes in cell behavior and adaptation mechanisms,” said Bruce Hammer, Ph.D., principal investigator and professor of radiology at the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research (CMRR) at the University of Minnesota. “We are studying the effects of reduced gravity on bone cell genomics, proteomics and metabolomics. Astronauts in space lose bone mass that exceeds the rate of bone loss of osteoporotic individuals on earth.”

Hammer says studying bone cell function in reduced gravity provides a fantastic laboratory for discovering how these cells develop a deranged metabolism. This has implications for developing the next generation of drugs to remediate osteoporosis.

Hammer and Louis Kidder, Ph.D., developed protocols for the enabling technology that sent the cells to ISS in a frozen state and unthawed in orbit allowing the cells to be worked on by the crew when they are able. When cells are frozen, they are essentially in a deep sleep and do not respond to the stress of launch forces and vibration which can mask the subtle effects of microgravity.

Hammer grew the bone cells in his laboratory and utilized a process known as magnetic levitation to simulate the effects of microgravity. “If we can demonstrate that magnetic levitation mimics microgravity, we then have a tool to do space biology on earth. Sending this experiment to the ISS took five years of effort so it’s really rewarding to see this experiment take flight.”

For more about the research visit NASA’s website.

Hammer will be available for phone interviews while at the Kennedy Space Station. To arrange an interview please contact Matt DePoint (mdepoint@umn.edu or 612-625-4110).