Top Space Station Research Results Countdown: Nine, Understanding Mechanisms of Osteoporosis and New Drug Treatments

In today’s A Lab Aloft entry International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D., continues her countdown of the top ten research results from the space station, recently presented at the International Astronautical Conference in Beijing, China. Be sure to check back for daily postings of the entire listing.

The next item in my top ten research results from the International Space Station countdown is related to its predecessor. The topic for number nine is understanding mechanisms of osteoporosis and new ways to treat it. In this case, however, we focus not on the humans as subjects, but on studies done with mice.

The pharmaceutical company, AMGEN, flew mice to and from the space station on three different assembly missions. These missions shed light on the impact of the space environment on bone health and related treatments. This study, called the Commercial Biomedical Testing Module (CBTM): Effects of Osteoprotegerin on Bone Maintenance in Microgravity, showed that mice treated with osteoprotegerin decreased bone resorption compared to untreated mice.

The Animal Enclosure Module above contains mice participating in the Commercial Biomedical Testing Module (CBTM) Effects of Osteoprotegerin on Bone Maintenance in Microgravity study on a shuttle assembly flight docked to the International Space Station. (NASA)
The Animal Enclosure Module above contains mice participating in the Commercial Biomedical Testing Module (CBTM) Effects of Osteoprotegerin on Bone Maintenance in Microgravity study during a space shuttle assembly flight docked to the International Space Station. (NASA)

The results from these studies have started to make their way to publication and to patients on Earth. As you can see in the images below from CBTM, the X-rays of the bones of the mice are quite telling. On the left is a ground control, in the middle is a mouse treated with an osteoprotegerin candidate drug, and on the right is a mouse in flight that’s not treated. You don’t have to be a sophisticated scientist to see those differences in the bone mass density—you can see them right on the X-ray.

X-rays of mouse bones from the CBTM study showing a ground control (left), as treated with Osteoprotegerin in microgravity (middle), and with no drug treatment during spaceflight (right). (L. Stodieck, Bioserve and T. Bateman, University of North Carolina)
X-rays of mouse bones from the CBTM study showing a ground control (left), as treated with Osteoprotegerin in microgravity (middle), and with no drug treatment during spaceflight (right). (L. Stodieck, Bioserve and T. Bateman, University of North Carolina)

The space experiment with osteoprotegerin, which was already developed and in clinical trials on the ground, was done to run tests in orbit to better understand the drug and how it functions. Those data were included in the development of the new drug applications by AMGEN, and that drug—called Prolia—came to market several years ago.

I’ve been meeting more and more women who are taking this drug to treat their osteoporosis; it can, of course, have serious side effects, but provides an alternative for some people who cannot take bisphosphonate drugs for their symptoms. The CBTM-2 and CBTM-3 studies look at bone and muscle loss in mice flown in space treated with other drugs working their way through clinical trials. It is gratifying to see a drug in patient care use today that comes from one of the first spaceflights of animals, and exciting to see pharmaceutical companies using the unique environment of spaceflight to improve health here on Earth.

I’m looking forward to the results that keep coming out from this research and the new expanded rodent capability beginning on the space station next year. The National Academy of Sciences have reported that rodent research is one of the most important areas for ensuring that the space station maximizes its benefits to the nation in scientific discovery and improving human health—you can see why!

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.
International Space Station Program Scientist

Top Ten Space Station Research Results Countdown: Ten, Preventing Loss of Bone Mass in Space Through Diet and Exercise

In today’s A Lab Aloft entry, International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D., continues her countdown of the top ten research results from the space station, recently presented at the International Astronautical Conference in Beijing, China. Be sure to check back for daily postings of the entire listing.

This topic of research is the culmination of years of study, starting with the very first International Space Station flight investigation into the loss of bone by astronauts. During the first part of space station history, astronauts were losing about one and a half percent of their total bone mass density per month. That’s a rate similar to a post-menopausal woman’s bone loss for an entire year—which is really significant.

Quantitative computed tomography (QCT) images of hip bones. (T. Lang, University of California, San Francisco)
Quantitative computed tomography (QCT) images of hip bones. (T. Lang, University of California, San Francisco)

Early space station researchers first identified this loss rate. Then they found that the exercises we were having the crew perform were not really providing the right forces to counter the bone mass reduction. Scientists started looking at crew member diet and exercise routines, along with the addition of upgraded exercise hardware. This progression culminated in the September 2012 publication in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research.

Scientists found that the correct mixture of set durations of high-intensity resistive exercise, combined with the right amount of dietary supplementation for vitamin D and specific caloric intake were key for bone health. With all of these things together, the astronauts could return to Earth after living in space without having lost significant bone mass. This is just one solution; there may be others. But this is a viable answer to an issue identified clear back during the Gemini missions, addressing a huge problem when humans go into space and lose gravity loading on their bodies.

Astronaut Lee Archambault, commander of the STS-119 mission, conducts an Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) workout in the Unity node aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)
Astronaut Lee Archambault, commander of the STS-119 mission, conducts an Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) workout in the Unity node aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

With this research, we can better understand how bone changes throughout life, in growth and aging, and how to prevent outcomes such as age-related bone fractures. This topic received an award at this year’s International Space Station Research and Development Conference, recognizing the community of NASA and academic scientists for carrying out research to define the extent and characteristics of bone loss in spaceflight, and for developing exercise- and drug-based approaches to attack the problem. Thomas Lang, Ph.D., professor of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging at the University of California San Francisco, was the recipient of the team award in recognition of outstanding results on preventing bone loss in long-duration spaceflight.

This is important of course for future exploration by astronauts, but also for patients on the ground. The paper made the cover of the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, due to the fact that it provides a very different way of looking at bone loss from what is typical in the osteoporosis research community.

When most women are diagnosed with osteoporosis, the next thing their doctor will tell them is: “Well, stay active, go walking, but don’t do anything too rigorous.” We found that by doing rigorous exercise, however, astronauts that don’t have other kinds of health issues were able to protect their bone. It’s going to take some time for the medical community to absorb how these results with astronauts might be applicable to others, especially those on the ground. This is a compelling result for the whole world, because it gives us insights into how bone is formed and maintained in the human body that could not have been obtained any other way.

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.
International Space Station Program Scientist

Sowing the Seeds for Space-Based Agriculture – Part 2

In today’s A Lab Aloft, Charlie Quincy, research advisor to the International Space Station Ground Processing and Research director at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, continues to share the growing potential of plants in space and the new plant habitat that will help guide researchers.

As astronauts continue to move away from Earth, our ties back to our planet are going to be strained. We won’t have the capability to jump into a return capsule and be back to Earth in 90 minutes.

To move further away from Earth, we have to continue to develop more autonomous systems in our spacecraft that supply our fundamental needs for oxygen production and carbon dioxide (CO2) removal, clean water and food. The genetic coding in plants to perform these functions has been refined and improved for the past 3-4 billion years as plants have continually evolved on Earth. So the code is pretty good. As long as we can provide biological organisms like plants or algae with the nutrients and support systems they need, they will pretty much know what to do. What they will do is clean water, change CO2 into oxygen and generate food. From a life support system, that’s kind of what you want to happen.

There are some interesting things about plants that we’ll have to deal with in space. For instance, we don’t have bumblebees in orbit, so who does the pollination? Who goes from flower to flower? We’ve actually had astronauts using cotton swabs to move pollen from one flower to another, in particular when we were growing strawberries a few years back. As we get more and more into it, we need to figure out how to do this without using the crew, since it would not be efficient to have them pollinating a field with cotton swabs.

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View of willow trees in an Advanced Biological Research System (ABRS) incubator for the Advanced Plant Experiments on Orbit – Cambium (APEX-Cambium) experiment aboard the International Space Station during Expedition 21. (NASA)

We have quite a number of things going on and coming to fruition on the International Space Station. We currently have a small habitat called the Advanced Biological Research System (ABRS) in orbit performing fundamental studies of plant growth in the microgravity environment. It has two independent chambers that are tightly controlled and have LED lights. We can manage moisture delivery, CO2 and trace gases inside those chambers and do some real hard science investigations. The Russian segment has a habitat, too, called the Lada greenhouse.

The Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) is a similar chamber under development, but that one will be larger. The APH will enable us to use larger plants and different species, all of which will be tightly controlled during growth investigations.

Another really exciting new system launching to the space station probably around the middle of next year is the Vegetable Production System (Veggie). It will begin bridging the gap between a pure science facility and a food production system. We are in the ground testing phase of the flight unit to assure it is safe for operation aboard the station with the help of the facility’s builder, Orbital Technologies Corporation of Madison, Wis. Orbitec. They also will manufacture the APH.

The beauty of the Veggie unit is that it’s really just a light canopy with a fan and a watering mat for growing plants, using the cabin atmosphere aboard the space station. The crew will have an opportunity to farm about two and a half square feet, which is a pretty good sized growing area. This system also has great potential as a platform for educational programs at the high school level, where students could grow the same plants in similar systems in their classrooms.

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The Veggie greenhouse will fit into an EXPRESS Rack on the International Space Station for use with plant investigations in orbit. (NASA)

We’re going to start growing lettuce plants in Veggie next year as a test run, because lettuce is well suited for this initial testing. Lettuce is a good first crop selection because it is a rapid growing plant, with a high edible content, and generally has a small micro flora content.  We will be using specially designed seed pillows to contain the below ground portion of the lettuce plant containing the roots, rooting media, and moisture delivery system. The plants will sprout and grow up through those pillows. Ultimately scientists will be able to grow larger plants like dwarf tomatoes or peppers.

We are continuing to do the testing associated with making sure the food grown in the closed environment of the space station is safe to eat for the crew. We hope that within a short period we will be able to augment the astronauts’ diets with herbs and spices and maybe onions, peppers or tomatoes, something to give the crunch factor. Ultimately, we hope to move to even larger chambers to begin producing more of the staple crops, such as potatoes or beans.

All of these new plant systems should be up and running in the very near future. Veggie should be aboard station next year, and by the middle of 2015 we expect to deploy the APH, completing the suite of plant facilities in orbit.

When talking about life-support systems for spaceflight, there’s obviously a more complicated viewpoint that says the systems that connect all that together are pretty elaborate and cumbersome. There are reservoirs, hoppers and a vast array of other things that have to be in place to operate a bioregenerative system, which makes them big and, in some cases, energy intensive. On short-duration missions we would probably do better packing a picnic lunch and taking only the support systems we need. The further we are away from Earth, and the longer it takes us to get back, however, drives systems planning in the regenerative direction. What we’re doing is laying the groundwork that will enable those kinds of decisions to be made for long-duration exploration.

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NASA astronaut Mike Fossum, Expedition 28 flight engineer, inspects a new growth experiment on the BIO-5 Rasteniya-2 (Plants-2) payload with its Lada-01 greenhouse in the Zvezda service module of the International Space Station. (NASA)

There’s a more near-term thing that we’re also looking at, which is the therapeutic aspects of growing plants. People have been exercising their “green thumbs” for this reason for years. They plant their little gardens, and the aromas of plants have a very positive impact on the way these people feel about things. The psychological effects of keeping plants are still somewhat unknown, and we’re hoping to get better insight into that. These effects include the nurturing aspects of watching something grow and caring for it. During spaceflight, far from Earth or on a long-duration mission, a totally sterile environment may not be what is desired. While you can’t have a pet dog or cat to make your living space a little more homey, perhaps you could have a pet plant to care for, as it provides oxygen and sustenance.

Charlie Quincy has been the Space Biology project manager at Kennedy Space Center for the past 13 years. His efforts include both flight and ground research aimed at expanding the current science knowledge base, solving issues associated with long-duration spaceflight and distributing knowledge to Earth applications. He is a registered professional engineer and has a master’s degree in Space Technologies. 


Sowing the Seeds for Space-Based Agriculture – Part 1

In today’s A Lab Aloft, Charlie Quincy, research advisor to the International Space Station Ground Processing and Research director at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, shares the growing potential of plants in space and the new plant habitat that will help guide researchers. The blog continues in Part 2.

There are forces that work together on this planet that we take for granted when it comes to how plants grow and thrive. Here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center we are in the process of identifying those things and how we can engineer facilities that replicate them in the closed system environment of a space vehicle or habitat, such as the International Space Station.

Within closed systems, there is limited or no exchange with the broader environment, we are specifically interested in closing the water, oxygen, and carbon loops for long duration space flight.  We have found that plants have well defined processes to perform the conversions necessary to close loop when supplied with light energy.

The wonderful thing about plants is that they pretty much know what they are supposed to do, as long as you give them an atmosphere they like. There are a couple of things that microgravity makes a little more tricky. There’s no convection mixing, for instance, in the atmosphere aboard the space station—which has a carbon dioxide (CO2) level of around 10 times what we see on Earth.

Crops tested in Vegetable Production System (Veggie) plant pillows (pictured here) include lettuce, Swiss chard, radishes, Chinese cabbage and peas. (NASA)

Crops tested in Vegetable Production System (Veggie) plant pillows (pictured here) include lettuce, Swiss chard, radishes, Chinese cabbage and peas. (NASA)

Plants take in CO2 and give off oxygen. This process occurs at the stomata on the bottom of the leaf; without convection mixing or wind, you get high concentrations of oxygen around the stoma and no CO2 coming in. We need to learn how much air movement in the chamber is necessary to force the oxygen away from the leafs and allow the CO2 to replace it.

Also, plants and their fruiting are very sensitive to various trace gases. Any time you have a closed system with little new makeup air being added, like aboard the space station, you have a buildup of trace gases. The gases, such as ethylene, that have a regulatory effect on plant growth need to be removed so plants can progress through their normal maturing process.

Without the force of gravity acting on the plant, we also have to make provisions to ensure the stems grow toward the light and the roots grow toward the water. The secondary capabilities of plants to orient themselves are still being worked out in basic science investigations.

Crew image of the Advanced Plant Experiments on Orbit -- Transgenic Arabidopsis Gene Expression System (APEX-TAGES) study during Expedition 23. (NASA)

Crew image of the Advanced Plant Experiments on Orbit — Transgenic Arabidopsis Gene Expression System (APEX-TAGES) study during Expedition 23. (NASA)

Thinking about how this work relates to what we grow on Earth, Ray Wheeler, another NASA scientist, and I were in Chicago at a commercial activity called “The Plant” to see how the people there incorporate the concepts of bioregenerative farming into their operation. This is a group of people who took an old building, formerly a meat packing house, and are trying to create a closed ecological system. They use this environment to grow plants, produce products for their store, restaurant and production facilities, and they use the waste products to generate energy for the growth facility.

NASA is interested in these facilities because they are a large venture compared to our space station operations, facing similar but different challenges. We are basically trying to do the same thing on a small scale; somewhere in the middle is what might be on a space habitat. We are setting up systems in balance and to make this balance we need to incorporate buffers and reservoirs and manage energy needs.

We are looking for opportunities where people are having success in creating these balanced systems. Working with organizations like The Plant, we learn together and push information back and forth to achieve our mutual and specific goals. Urban farming is becoming more and more common around the world and our closed system space flight goals to manage energy use and producing fresh food have much in common. Working together with this broader community will bring more solutions into play and help to uncover the best options.

Farming is no longer isolated to rural areas and the agriculture industry is growing to include urban farms. If you look at a city like New York, you’ll see little greenhouses on the roofs of almost every building. Many of those greenhouses are associated with the restaurants located on the first floor. If you have a Jamaican restaurant, for instance, they’ll have herbs and spices they’ve brought from Jamaica that they grow on their roofs. Farming for immediate use is exactly what we’re doing and we can learn from each other.

This New York-based rooftop greenhouse is an example of a closed ecological system here on Earth. (Credit: Ari Burling)

This New York-based rooftop greenhouse is an example of a closed ecological system here on Earth. (Credit: Ari Burling)

Within our ground research activities at Kennedy we have tested a broad range of crops and support systems in our growth chambers over the years. We have published hundreds of papers on our results, many of which have broad application for the agriculture industry. We also have seen and published results on the impacts of trace gases on food production, as well as different colored lighting and photo periods on plant performance. This type of information can have a tremendous impact on our global agriculture industry.

It’s really interesting how everything ties together. By pushing the boundaries and adding to our understanding of plant life we can continue to learn from each other and share benefits. We can help plants on the ground and in orbit do what they do best: grow!

Charlie Quincy has been the Space Biology project manager at Kennedy Space Center for the past 13 years. His efforts include both flight and ground research aimed at expanding the current science knowledge base, solving issues associated with long-duration spaceflight and distributing knowledge to Earth applications. He is a registered professional engineer and has a master’s degree in Space Technologies.  

Women in Space Part One, Female Firsts in Flight for Space Exploration and Research

In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Liz Warren, Ph.D., recalls the inspirational contributions and strides made by women in space exploration and International Space Station research.

This month we celebrate the anniversaries of three “firsts” for female space explorers. On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova of the Soviet Union became the first woman in space. Then on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became America’s first woman in space, followed by Liu Yang as China’s first woman in space on June 16, 2012. Though their flight anniversaries are not in June, I would be remiss if I did not mention the first European woman in space: Helen Sharman in 1991; the first Canadian woman: Roberta Bondar in 1992; and the first Japanese woman: Chiaki Mukai in 1994.

Women in space_1

At the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, Dec. 2, 2010, NASA astronaut Cady Coleman (right), Expedition 26 flight engineer, meets with Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly in space, on the eve of Coleman’s departure for the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where she and her crewmates, Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev and Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency launched Dec. 16, Kazakhstan time, on the Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft to the International Space Station. Tereshkova, 73, became the first woman to fly in space on June 16, 1963, aboard the USSR’s Vostok 6 spacecraft. (NASA/Mike Fossum)

Each of these milestones built upon each other by inspiring the next wave of female explorers, continuing through today with the women of the International Space Station and beyond. With this in mind, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate women in space and highlight those with a connection to space station research. It is amazing to me to see just how connected these seemingly separate events can be. The steps of the intrepid explorers who engage in space exploration set the course for future pioneers, blazing the trail and providing the inspiration for those who follow.

To date, 57 women including cosmonauts, astronauts, payload specialists and foreign nationals have flown in space. Our current woman in orbit is NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, working aboard the space station as a flight engineer for Expeditions 36 and 37. While Nyberg lives on the orbiting laboratory for the next six months, she will perform experiments in disciplines that range from technology development, physical sciences, human research, biology and biotechnology to Earth observations. She also will engage students through educational activities in addition to routine vehicle tasks and preparing her crewmates for extravehicular activities, or spacewalks.

Women in space_2

NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg performs a test for visual acuity, visual field and contrast sensitivity. This is the first use of the fundoscope hardware and new vision testing software used to gather information on intraocular pressure and eye anatomy. (NASA)

Many of the women who have flown before Nyberg include scientists who continued their microgravity work, even after they hung up their flight suits. In fact, some of them are investigators for research and technology experiments recently performed on the space station. Whether inspired by their own time in orbit or by the space environment, these women are microgravity research pioneers ultimately looking to improve the lives of those here on Earth.

Chiaki Mukai, M.D., Ph.D. of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, for instance, served aboard space shuttle missions STS-65 and STS-95. She now is an investigator for the space station investigations Biological Rhythms and Biological Rhythms 48, which look at human cardiovascular health. She also is the primary investigator for Hair, a study that looks at human gene expression and metabolism based on the human hair follicle during exposure to the space station environment. MycoMyco 2Myco 3, other investigations run by Mukai, look at the risk of microorganisms via inhalation and adhesion to the skin to see which fungi act as allergens aboard the space station. Finally, Synergy is an upcoming study Mukai is leading that will look at the re-adaptation of walking after spaceflight.

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STS-95 payload specialist Chiaki Mukai is photographed working at the Vestibular Function Experiment Unit (VFEU) located in the Spacehab module. (NASA)

Peggy Whitson, Ph.D. served aboard the space shuttle and space station for STS-111Expedition 5STS-113, and Expedition 16. She also is the principal investigator for the Renal Stoneinvestigation, which examined a countermeasure for kidney stones. Results from this science have direct application possibilities by helping scientists understand kidney stone formation on Earth. Whitson, who blogged with A Lab Aloft on the importance of the human element to microgravity studies, also served as the chief of the NASA Astronaut Office at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston from 2009 to 2012.

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Expedition 16 Commander Peggy Whitson prepares the Capillary Flow Experiment (CFE) Vane Gap-1 for video documentation in the International Space Station’s U.S. Laboratory. CFE observes the flow of fluid, in particular capillary phenomena, in microgravity. (NASA)

Sally Ride, Ph.D. (STS-7STS-41G) initiated the education payload Sally Ride EarthKAM, which was renamed in her honor after her passing last year. This camera system allows thousands of students to photograph Earth from orbit for study. They use the Internet to control the digital camera mounted aboard the space station to select, capture and review Earth’s coastlines, mountain ranges and other geographic areas of interest.

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Astronaut Sally Ride, mission specialist on STS-7, monitors control panels from the pilot’s seat on space shuttle Challenger’s flight deck. Floating in front of her is a flight procedures notebook. (NASA)

Millie Hughes-Fulford, Ph.D. (STS-40) has been an investigator on several spaceflight studies, including Leukin-2 and the T-Cell Activation in Aging study, which is planned to fly aboard the space station during Expeditions 37 and 38. This research looks at how the human immune system responds to microgravity, taking advantage of the fact that astronauts experience suppression of their immune response during spaceflight to pinpoint the trigger for reactivation. This could lead to ways to “turn on” the body’s natural defenses for those suffering from immunosuppression on Earth.

Hughes-Fulford has been a mentor to me since I was in high school. It was Hughes-Fulford who encouraged me to pursue a career in life sciences, and she also invited me to attend her launch aboard space shuttle Columbia on STS-40, the first shuttle mission dedicated to space life sciences. In fact, STS-40 also was the first spaceflight mission with three women aboard: Hughes-Fulford; Tammy Jernigan, Ph.D.; and Rhea Seddon, M.D.

I followed Hughes-Fulford’s advice, and, years later, I found myself watching STS-84 roar into orbit carrying the life sciences investigation that I had worked on as a student at the University of California, Davis. In the pilot’s seat of shuttle Atlantis that morning was Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot and command the space shuttle. Our investigation, Effects of Gravity on Insect Circadian Rhythmicity, was transferred to the Russian space station Mir, where the sleep/wake cycle of insects was studied to understand the influence of spaceflight on the internal body clock.

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Payload Specialist Millie Hughes-Fulford checks the Research Animal Holding Facility (RAHF) in the Spacelab Life Sciences (SLS-1) module aboard space shuttle Columbia. (NASA)

Women at NASA always have and continue to play key roles in space exploration. Today we have female flight controllers, flight directors, spacecraft commanders, engineers, doctors and scientists. In leadership positions, Lori Garver is at the helm as NASA’s deputy administrator, veteran astronaut Ellen Ochoa is director of Johnson; and Lesa Roe is director of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

In space exploration and in science, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. These women pushed the boundaries and continue to expand the limits of our knowledge. What an incredible heritage for the girls of today who will become the scientists, engineers, leaders and explorers of tomorrow.

Liz Warren

Liz Warren, Ph.D., communications coordinator for the International Space Station Program Science Office. (NASA)

Liz Warren, Ph.D., is a physiologist with Barrios Technology, a NASA contractor. Her role in the International Space Station Program Science Office is to communicate research results and benefits both internally to NASA and externally to the public. Warren previously served as the deputy project scientist for Spaceflight Analogs and later for the ISS Medical Project as a science operations lead at the Mission Control Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Born and raised near San Francisco, she has a Bachelor of Science degree in molecular, cellular and integrative physiology and a doctorate in physiology from the University of California at Davis. She completed post-doctoral fellowships in molecular and cell biology and then in neuroscience. Warren is an expert on the effects of spaceflight on the human body and has authored publications ranging from artificial gravity protocols to neuroscience to energy balance and metabolism.

When Finding Nothing Means Discovering Something

In today’s blog, Dr. Sara Zwart shares with thereaders of A Lab Aloft her thoughts and experiences as a scientist, includinghow sometimes data showing nothing can actually indicate something!

It’salways exciting to make new scientific discoveries. But though it may soundcounter intuitive, sometimes it can be just as important to find nothing. When looking at researchresults, a lack of change can actually indicate that you have found something, which can lead tounanticipated, but amazing discoveries. This has happened twice in the pastyear at NASA’s Nutritional Biochemistry Laboratory as part of the NutritionalStatus Assessment experiment, or Nutrition.

Thegoal of the Nutrition study is to understand what changes in an astronaut’shealth while they live aboard the International Space Station. Improvedknowledge in how humans react to living in space for long durations can helpprepare NASA for future exploration to Mars, as well as help in understanding howwell current efforts to counteract the negative effects of microgravity work.These countermeasures include exercise and a carefully planned diet, among otherthings.

Forthis study, astronauts collect blood and urine samples during flight, as well onthe ground during the routine pre- and postflight testing. Before they fly, crewmembers train on how to take blood from each other or from themselves, and theyalso can practice collecting urine, which can be tricky in microgravity!

Groundtraining helps to prepare the crew for sample collection for the NutritionalStatus Assessment experiment, or Nutrition. (NASA Image JSC2006E27274)

Uponreturn to Earth, crew member samples are analyzed for a broad range ofchemicals and biochemicals, from nutrients to bone and muscle markers tohormones and other compounds. One of the nutrients we study is vitamin K, whichis a crucial vitamin for blood clotting, and it also has an important role in maintainingbone health. 

Earlystudies from the space station Mir provided evidence that vitamin K status maybe lower during space flight, and researchers suggested that vitamin K shouldbe investigated as a potential countermeasure for bone loss. Those earlystudies on Mir involved only one or two crew members, and a food system differentfrom the one we use today on station. 

Acrew member works with test samples in the Human Research Facility 2 (HRF-2)Refrigerated Centrifuge as a part of the Nutritional Status Assessment(Nutrition) experiment in the Columbus laboratory of the International SpaceStation. (Credit: NASA)

ForNutrition, we measured vitamin K status from markers in the blood and urine in15 station crew members at five different time points during their mission. Wefound no evidence for decrements in vitamin K status. In other words, vitamin Kis still important for health, blood and bones, but there is no evidence thatmore would be better.

Thesetypes of “negative” findings are important. In this case, we learned that thecurrent space food system is sufficient to maintain vitamin K status inastronauts. What’s further, at this time there is no basis for recommendingvitamin K supplements to prevent bone loss that occurs during space flight. 

ANASA astronaut places samples into the Minus Eighty Laboratory Freezer for ISS(MELFI-1).
(Credit: NASA)

Hormonescan be measured in the crew’s blood and urine samples, providing valuableinformation on a number of the body’s systems. One hormone that we measured aspart of the Nutrition study was testosterone. This is an important hormone inthe body for building up and maintaining bone and muscle mass. 

Someearlier studies suggested that there may be lower levels of testosterone inastronauts during space flight, which may contribute to some of the observed boneand muscle loss. As part of this study, we measured the blood levels of testosteroneat five different time points during space flight to test this hypothesis.Again, 15 station crew members provided samples, however the analysis showedthat no changes to testosterone occurred during flight. 

Oncemore, these negative findings provided important information in working tounderstand how the human body adapts to microgravity exposure. This is especiallytrue when we consider ways to counteract some of the known negative effects ofweightlessness, including bone and muscle loss. By narrowing the causes ofthese concerns to human health in space, we get closer to identifying the rootcauses and providing significant countermeasures.

Sara Zwart, Ph.D., and hercolleague Scott Smith, Ph.D., lead NASA’s Nutritional Biochemistry Lab atJohnson Space Center. The testosterone research discussed above was publishedin the Journal of ClinicalEndocrinology and Metabolism (epub:doi:10.1210/jc.2011-2233), and the vitamin K work was published in the Journalof Bone and Mineral Research (26:948-54,2011). In addition to ground-research studies, Zwart and Smith lead two spacestation experiments, NutritionalStatus Assessment and ProK, in which they investigate the roles of animal protein and potassium inmitigating bone loss.

Welcoming New Management to Space Station National Laboratory

The Center for the Advancement of Science In Space, knownas CASIS, introduced itself this fall to the community of existing National Labpartners as the new non-profit organization that will manage the National Labon behalf of NASA. CASIS was founded specifically to fulfill the statutoryrequirement from Congress that a non-profit entity be engaged by NASA tostimulate, develop, and manage non-NASA U.S. use of the space station. On theNASA side, we are excited to start meeting our new CASIS colleagues as transitionwork begins.

The primary mission of CASIS is threefold:

  • Maximize the value of the space station to the nation through both research and development and STEM education activities.
  • Stimulate use of the station by other agencies, academia, and private firms.
  • Develop tools and techniques to communicate the value of the work done on the station and increase the return on the taxpayer investment.

CASIS intends to accomplish this mission by building astrong, interconnected community, which ties together investigators at anylevel of progress down a particular research pathway, provides both private andpublic sources of funding, and engages experts in science and economics who canadvise the community on technical matters and provide an independent valuationof a particular line of research.

These pathways will connect basic and applied research tothe resulting mission and market applications. The goal is to shorten theoverall cycle time by evaluating projects in terms of the bigger picture andwith an understanding of their added value. As a non-profit, CASIS can alsobring in visionary, speculative, and commercial funding sources, whereappropriate, in the research process by recruiting backers who are seeking thevalue the project provides.

The International Space Station (NASA Image)

CASIS will sponsor both a Science Collegium and anEconomic Collegium to examine the scientific feasibility and economic value ofproposals brought forward to the non-profit, using a value-added approach tocomplement scientific review, as well as proven algorithms for economicvaluation. These valuation models will be benchmarked against real world datafrom existing National Lab partners before they are formally implemented.

All of these various elements will come together in whatCASIS calls, the “Marketplace,” where researchers can seek funding andpartnerships, implementation partners can offer their expertise with flighthardware and integration services, investors can look for promisingopportunities, and all the various participants can negotiate innovativepartnerships and collaborations with the help of CASIS.

Through its initial seed funding from NASA, as well aspartnerships with private investors and other government agencies, CASIS willsponsor annual grant solicitations designed to bolster research lines,education programs, and technology development projects assessed by the Scienceand Economic Collegiums as having particular merit and value. This willcontinue over the 10-year cooperative agreement between NASA and CASIS, whichhas a five-year extension option.

The CASIS concept of operations will further develop overthe next year as the organization grows and the Collegiums form. The transitionwill include CASIS progressively taking on more of the payload developmentsupport and research prioritization roles, while the International SpaceStation National Lab Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center facilitates thehandover with existing partners. 

Learn more and keep up-to-date with this promising newcollaborative model between CASIS and NASA at:

Presentations from the CASIS Kickoff Meeting can be foundat:

The Center for theAdvancement of Science In Space, known as CASIS, official logo.
(CASIS Image)

Justin Kugler, strategic relationships managerfor the International Space Station National Lab Office, worked with CASISleaders in developing this initial blog. Stand by for more details as CASISestablishes their organization for enabling new research on the space station. 

Destination Station Brings the Space Experience Home

In today’s post, International Space Station Program Scientist, Julie Robinson, Ph.D., shares the experience and benefits of Destination Station with the readers of A Lab Aloft.

Destination Station is a new endeavor that we have as a resource to help bring information about the International Space Station to the public. The goal of this traveling exhibit is to inform people around the country about this amazing orbiting laboratory and resource by visiting different host communities. Destination Station includes a fantastic museum exhibit that actually lets visitors walk through a mockup of the same shape and size of the modules on the space station. It also has interactive videos and posters, in addition to artifacts for people to look at.

The Destination Station exhibit will travel around the country to help inform the public about the International Space Station and promote research and education opportunities.
(Credit: NASA)

When the Destination Station exhibit arrives in a new community, there are about two weeks of different events that come with it. One major focus area includes educational activities, both linked to the host museum and to schools in the local community. NASA educators come in and bring some of our outstanding education programs out to different schools. They also set up communication events where students can experience a live downlink and talk with astronauts on orbit, asking them questions about station research and what it’s like to live in space.

Once Destination Station moves on, resources are left behind so that area teachers can continue to use space to get their students focused on science, math, and engineering. Studies have shown that students are interested in space—If you think about two things that get students excited about science, it’s space and dinosaurs. We can’t provide dinosaurs, but we do have a lot to share about space.

The Destination Station exhibit includes interactive posters, like the one pictured above showing a scale image of the station with a size comparison to a football field.
(Credit: NASA)

The other important aspect of Destination Station is reaching out to the business community. For example, at the most recent event in Denver, Colorado, there was a pretty large technology savvy population. Astronaut Mike Good and I had a chance to speak with state representatives and business leaders as part of the Destination Station scheduled talks. Through this forum, we had the opportunity to share with those leaders the importance of the space station and space exploration for the American economy. We focused on how research results and technology developments keep our country on the cutting edge, serving as an economic engine that drives innovation and business economies around the world.

The response from the Denver and Colorado-based business community was just outstanding! These community leaders were really interested in what is happening with the space station and the potential boost to economic growth. In fact, many of the businesses are already evolving technologies developed for aerospace and space research into Earth-focused products and services. Examples include things like clothing made from phase change materials, superior plant growth media, and GPS tracking services.

The Destination Station exhibit includes interactive posters, like the one pictured above sharing information about research in space.
(Credit: NASA)

In the Colorado area there are a number of companies that focus on working with scientists to help them do research on the space station. These businesses hosted a fair at Destination Station to reach out to those interested in translating their research from the university lab bench to the space environment. Scientists could go, see the hardware, and talk to providers experienced in taking ground-based research and putting it up into space. Bioserve Space Technologies demonstrated all of the hardware available at the fair.

Destination Station is a great combination of events for everyone from the students to the general public to researchers. Earlier in the year we also took the exhibit to the Ohio area, with events in Cleveland and Columbus. There are talks with universities and civic groups, it’s just a really exciting two weeks when Destination Station comes to town. We hope to see you at the next location for Destination Station stop in the San Francisco Bay area in early March 2012.

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.
International Space Station Program Scientist

Touching Lives via International Space Station Benefits

We are proud to announce the new International Space Station Benefits for Humanity website. Today’s entry highlights how this international collaborative effort communicates positive impacts to life here on Earth from space station research and technology.

Last month at the International Space Station Heads of Agencies meeting in Quebec, Canada, my international counterparts and I had the opportunity to share the results of more than a year’s worth of work across the international partnership. This collaboration culminated in the launch of the International Space Station Benefits for Humanity website, which looks at the early results from the space station and highlights those that have returned major benefits to humanity.

This website was translated into all the major partner languages and there also is a downloadable book format. The 28 stories found on the site focus on human health, education, and Earth observation and remote sensing, but these are just some of the benefit areas. Others, such as the knowledge gained for exploration or basic scientific discovery, are found on the space station results and news websites.

It can be a bit challenging at first see which station efforts will generate direct Earth benefits. This is because when we do the research, we finish things on orbit and then it can take two to five years for the results to publish, and possibly another five years after that before the knowledge yields concrete returns. I think each of us, while developing these stories, found things that surprised us. I suspect readers will, too. Some of these developments and findings are so amazing they go straight to your heart!

For example, the Canadian Space Agency robotic technology developed for the Canadarm was really cutting edge; now it has been applied to a robotic arm that can assist with surgery. Brain surgeons have used this robotic arm to help some patients who were not eligible for a standard operation, because the surgeries were too delicate for human hands. With the robotic assist, still in the testing phase, they were able to save the lives of several patients. This is a remarkable development.

Paige Nickason was the first patient to have brain surgery performed by the neuroArm robot, developed based on International Space Station technology. (Jason Stang) View large image

Another area where space technology returns offer a benefit to humanity is in the ability to provide clean water in remote regions and disaster areas. We also have stories about the ability to use station related telemedicine to improve the success and survival for women and their babies, if they anticipate complications during delivery. Providing a remote diagnosis to women in hard-to-reach areas enables them to seek life-saving medical care. These are just a few of the remarkable returns from space technologies.

Expectant women around the world can experience safer deliveries in part due to International Space Station technology in telemedicine. (Credit: Scott Dulchavsky)

The website also includes stories that focus on the research knowledge obtained during station investigations. One particular area gaining attention is vaccine development. Scientists are now creating candidate vaccines for salmonella that fight food poisoning, as well as one in the works for MRSA—an antibiotic resistant bacteria that is very dangerous in hospitals.

An example of Salmonella invading cultured human cells. (Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH) View large image

We also see ongoing benefits in the area of Earth observation, which our Japanese colleagues compellingly described after the Fukushima earthquake in Japan. The Japanese people were responding to that event in such courageous ways. Having information about what was going on really helped and the global community mobilized all the possible Earth remote sensing resources to provide aid via imagery of the disaster. The station provided imagery and data of the flooding from the original tsunami surge. I would like to share with you the comments of my JAXA colleague, Shigeki Kamigaichi, who was on the ground after the disaster:

“The Earth observation by astronauts from the International Space Station brought us several impressive image data offerings. Furthermore, the crew comments concerning the tsunami damage from March 11, 2011, to the people who suffered gave us a feeling of oneness and relief.”

Oblique image of the Japanese coastline north and east of Sendai following inundation by a tsunami. The photo was taken Mar. 13, 2011. Sunglint indicates the widespread presence of floodwaters and indicates oils and other materials on the water surface. (NASA) View large image

One of the exciting things about Earth observations work is that the station passes over populated parts of the world multiple times a day. Our Russian colleagues shared some examples of work they had done to track pollution in the Caspian Sea using data from the space station. They also used Uragan imagery to understand a major avalanche in the Russian Caucasus region, determining glacial melting as the root cause of the avalanche. These imaging efforts really help as we look at ways to better respond and predict disasters and prevent future loss of life.

Oil pollution in the northern part of the Caspian Sea, on the basis of data received from the Uragan experiment: 40 oilfields, equaling approximately 10 percent of the surface covered with oil film. (Roscosmos) View large image

Of course, there also are the compelling educational benefits from the space station. It is inspiring to see students get excited about science, technology, engineering and math, simply by connecting them to space exploration. Education is a bonus, since this is not why you build a laboratory like this. Once you have that laboratory, however, you can make a huge impact in children’s futures.

One of the most widely influential examples of educational benefits are when we hear students from all over the world, not just station partners, using HAM radio contacts to speak with astronauts aboard station. This happens on the astronauts’ free time, when they can just pick up the ham radio and contact hundreds of students through amateur radio networks. These children ask questions and learn about everything from space to life aboard the station to how to dream big. It is a recreational activity for the astronauts, taking just a few minutes, but the students are touched for a lifetime.

Because this effort is so readily routed internationally, students in developing countries can benefit just as easily as students in other areas. In fact, 63 countries already have participated with the space station; a much larger number than the 15 partner countries. Education activities are a core international benefit.

A student talks to a crew member aboard the International Space Station during an ARISS contact. (Credit: ARISS) View large image

While this initial launch of the Benefits for Humanity website was a big release, it is something we plan to maintain and continue over time with our partners. The work for these derivatives of station activities will continue to roll out over time, but we anticipate it to grow. When you have hundreds of experiments active during any six-month period on orbit, the throughput and the amount of crew time going to research each week is unprecedented!

The experiments are being completed faster than ever before and we are going to see these benefits and results coming out much more quickly, so it is an exciting time. It is important to start talking about these developments as we turn the corner from assembly to the full mission of research aboard this one-of-a-kind orbiting laboratory.

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.
International Space Station Program Scientist

Space Innovation and Mobile Healthcare

In today’s A Lab Aloft, our guest blogger is the Director of NASA’s Human Health and Performance Center, Dr. Jeffrey Davis. This center fosters a collaboration between space and Earth research and technologies. Dr. Davis shares with readers the potential behind cooperative efforts during the development stages of projects.

Mobile healthcare is the focus for the upcoming NASA Human Health and Performance Center, or NHHPC, Workshop, scheduled for June 7 in Washington, D.C., as part of D.C. Health Data and Innovation Week. This is our third workshop, and topics of interest include not only terrestrial global health issues, but also technologies for smartphone applications to collect data, to inform patients, to connect patients with their providers, etc.

A collaborative moment from the NASA Human Health and Performance Center Workshop, Jan. 19, 2011. (NASA Image)

For everything developed through the NHHPC, we would like to see an Earth and space application, as well as a transfer of knowledge in both directions. NASA technology could be adapted to terrestrial health issues, via spinoffs and other applications, but we hope to pull in ideas that exist in the public domain for the mutual benefit of everyone. That is the concept behind the center, to connect people and employ that bridge in both directions to benefit spaceflight and life on Earth.

While there are a number of projects ongoing between members, for this blog I am focusing on the Colorimetric Solid Phase Extraction, or CSPE, technology. This is a great example, because it’s different from flying a commercial off-the-shelf device on the International Space Station. It has the potential for development in more than one application.

The CSPE is a paint chip identification device originally designed to match paint colors. The technology was adapted, however, to measure silver and iodine in water and it is now flying on the space station for this purpose. Called the Colorimetric Water Quality Monitoring Kit, this tool enables the measurement of biocides found in water on orbit to allow for safe drinking water for the crew.

NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, Expedition 21 flight engineer, conducts a water quality analysis using the Colorimetric Water Quality Monitoring Kit, or CWQMK, in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. (NASA Image)

There are additional Earth benefits that could derive from the CSPE. It has the potential to be modified to measure arsenic and lead in water, which are global public health concerns. This other capability is not yet developed, but it is a great example of how an innovative design from a non-biomedical piece of equipment can have mutual space and Earth applications.

Through the NHHPC, we hope to find technology applications for space flight or that can use the space station as a testbed for evaluation in later flights. When we are able to fly technologies early in their development on station, we have the benefit of visualizing how the orbiting lab works as a platform for planning purposes.

The inverse of this is that as we continue to learn more about human adaptation to long duration space flight, we can expand that knowledge base through our member organizations and derive how existing NASA technologies or future technologies might adapt for Earth benefits. What we have found is that by approaching problem solving early enough with the NHHPC members, we can preemptively address issues or requirement questions. Creating a device that is low weight, low power and robust parallels many healthcare concerns, especially for remotely located populations.

We find that by asking the right questions, we can connect people in the early phases of technology planning and development. Technology sharing can always occur, but the goal is to identify common issues for use as collaboration platforms that can eventually turn into projects.

The NASA Human Health and Performance Center logo, showing the core goals of collaboration, innovation, and education in global human health and performance efforts in spaceflight between NASA and member institutions. (NASA Image)

The NHHPC is a global, collaborative virtual center designed to convene government, industry, academic, and non-profit organizations that support the advancement of human health and performance innovations for space flight, commercial aviation, and challenging environments on Earth. Our member organizations participate in face-to-face workshops, webcasts, and virtual working groups to address issues, share best practices, and formulate collaborative projects in various areas, including innovation, education, human health and technology development. You can read more about the NHHPC events and developments on our website and follow us on Twitter via @NASAHumanHealth.

Jeffrey R. Davis, MD, MS
NHHPC Director

Johnson Space Center

Jeffrey R. Davis, MD, MS, currently serves as Director, Space Life Sciences, and as the Chief Medical Officer for the NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Dr. Davis’ past positions include Professor, Preventive Medicine and Community Health at the University of Texas Medical Branch; Corporate Medical Director, American Airlines; and Chief, Medical Operations NASA Johnson Space Center.