Orthopaedic Surgery

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Bone Healing in Space

Led by IU School of Medicine faculty Melissa Kacena, PhD, associate professor of orthopaedic surgery; Todd McKinley, MD, professor of orthopaedic surgery; and Tien-Min Gabriel Chu, DDS, PhD, associate professor of restorative dentistry and orthopaedic surgery in collaboration with NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense, orthopaedic research is being conducted in space aboard the International Space Station. In the weightlessness of space, researchers are able to study novel and current bone healing therapies on mice and translate the findings to be utilized in a clinical and/or operational setting.

Research Need

While the exact cause is unknown, astronauts experience 1–3 percent bone loss per month while in space–a much higher rate than elderly individuals with osteoporosis. A better understanding of bone loss is important for NASA researchers, as there are plans to extend space flights for much longer periods of time.

In addition, current bone healing therapies for severe bone injuries require extended bed rest, which is known to impair normal bone healing. Rather than turn to amputation as a treatment for the most serious of bone injuries, the research being conducted through Bone Healing in Space may lead to significant limb-saving treatments for members of the U.S. Military and beyond.

The overall goal of Dr. Kacena and her skilled research team is to improve the understanding of the interaction of the bone and hematopoietic systems, thereby potentially improving the treatment of metabolic bone disease, hematopoietic disorders and fracture healing.

The research of this team focuses on four main areas:

  • The role of megakaryocytes in regulating osteoblasts proliferation and bone formation
  • The molecular mechanisms underlying bone repair and fracture healing
  • Osteoblasts and the hematopoietic stem cell niche
  • The effects of spaceflight on bone regeneration