Kacena Lab counting down for 2nd space launch
For the second time in as many years, an Indiana University School of Medicine professor and her team of researchers are preparing to take their experiment into outer space.
Melissa Kacena, PhD, director of basic and translational research and professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, and eight IU School of Medicine learners will travel to Cape Canaveral, Florida in early July to complete the second phase of their bone-healing research project, a collaboration with NASA and the U.S. Army.
Osteoblast cells from the Kacena Lab will be taken aboard the International Space Station and cultured there for two weeks by NASA astronauts while IU researchers on the ground study how spaceflight changes the cells and the effects of an FDA-approved drug as well as a novel drug identified by Kacena on bone healing.
In 2017, the team sent mice into space, where they were tested using bone-healing therapies in weightlessness through a project dubbed Rodent Research-IV. The goal was to determine how those therapies could be utilized in clinical settings on Earth—and they have the same aspirations this time.
Osteoblasts are cells essential to bone development. As their counterparts, osteoclasts, break down bone, osteoblasts work to reform them. The resorption process—which takes about seven years naturally on Earth, where gravity is present—is sped up in the weightlessness of space.
Astronauts lose the amount of bone in one month in space that someone with osteoporosis loses in one year on Earth. That’s more than 10-times the bone loss in spaceflight.
Sending the cells into space ensures drugs can be tested without any of the natural healing weight-bearing can have on broken bones and damaged cells.
It’s hard to see the true effects of these drugs when they’re tested on Earth because it’s difficult to decipher what healing has occurred because of the drug and what has occurred naturally, Kacena said.
Conducting the experiment in space will give a clearer picture, she said: if the drugs work in space, then they’ll work anywhere.
During the first trip to space, the drug was tested on mice that had undergone an orthopaedic surgery. Now, testing osteoblast cells will give researchers a better understanding of how the drug will work on humans.
Once the cells are returned to Earth they’ll be fully analyzed, including tests for proteins, genes, and even energy.
A team of nine researchers, including some undergraduate students, medical students and post-doctoral researchers, will head for Kennedy Space Center on July 9 to begin their work. The cells are set to be launched into space on SpaceX-18 on July 21.
Most of the team will return to Indianapolis within a week after the launch. Kacena will monitor the experiment from Kennedy Space Center to monitor how the astronauts conduct the study and will ensure the ground controls samples are treated as identically as possible to the spaceflight samples.