Posted: Friday, June 16, 2017 – 9:55 AM
By Laura Coleman
Earlier this month, some 40 mice hitched a ride on a SpaceX commercial resupply flight to the International Space Station where researchers will be able to test out an experimental drug to treat osteoporosis, which is based on a bonebuilding protein called NELL-1 discovered by Beverly Hills resident Kang Ting. Together with his wife, Chia Soo, Kang has been spearheading a team of UCLA scientists researching the experimental drug.
This experiment marks the first time UCLA rodents have gone to space.
“The NELL-1 gene is in part how mother nature grows bones in babies,” explained Soo. “Space creates situations of micro-gravity that are literally not replicable on earth. It’s really the ultimate testing ground.”
Soo said that tests on earth have already shown that healthy mice appear to actually grow more bone when the drug has been introduced into their bodies on Earth. Human trials, however, are still far out.
The conditions on space, where bone loss is greatly accelerated, will provide a much better understanding of the drug’s potential, she said. More than 200 million people worldwide are affected by osteoporosis.
“It will literally grow bone,” Soo stated.
Whereas on Earth, humans typically lose about 0.5 percent of their bone mass each year after the age of 50, in space bone loss increases significantly due to the lack of gravity. Astronauts can lose around 1.5 percent of their bone mass each month. If successful, the drug could theoretically be used both to rebuild bone and block further bone loss, improving health for crew members in orbit and people on Earth.
After living in micro-gravity and receiving NELL-1 injections for about four weeks, half of the mice will return from space, marking the first live return of rodents to earth 30 days out. The other half will stay for an additional four weeks. On Earth there are also 40 ground control mice going through the same tests.
The project, which has been 18 years in the making, is being done in collaboration with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, which manages the U.S. National Laboratory on the space station.
Successful development of this drug could help veterans recover from traumatic injuries, reverse the effects of osteoporosis and bring mankind one step closer to surviving long-term in space.