Breathing Space: MARROW Study Update

Dr. Guy Trudel stands in front of a photo of the International Space Station.

The MARROW study collects breath and blood samples from astronauts to better the health care of patients and space travellers alike.

Guy Trudel has never been to space. Yet every day the subjects of his study eat, sleep, and especially breathe, space.

Dr. Trudel is the principal investigator of MARROW, a five-year study funded by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to increase understanding of microgravity’s effects on bone marrow and the number and function of the blood cells produced within.

Based at uOttawa’s Faculty of Medicine, Dr. Trudel works with space agencies around the world to examine these changes aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

“MARROW is a large, international collaboration of numerous countries,” says Dr. Trudel. Since 2015, astronauts have been helping facilitate the study, led by Dr. Trudel, professor in the Faculty and specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation, and Odette Laneuville, professor in the Faculty of Science and expert in the biology of rehabilitation.

Trudel is examining fat accumulation in the marrow of astronauts and how it influences red and white blood cells. Since astronauts are prone to blood-related conditions such as anemia and infection while in space, a healthy population of blood cells is critical to their safety.

The effects of microgravity on an astronaut’s bones mimic those of people who are bedridden, inactive or having chronically limited mobility; understanding bone marrow may also translate into greater rehabilitation options for these Earth-bound individuals.

“Like astronauts, these patients have little force acting on their skeleton, which leads to bone marrow fat accumulation,” Trudel says. “How an astronaut recovers from microgravity is similar to a patient after months in the ICU.”

MARROW is on the daily schedule of astronauts aboard the ISS. Breath samples are collected and returned to Earth via special spacecrafts and directed to the labs at the University of Ottawa. Prior to each participant leaving Earth and up to one year after their return, blood samples are taken—but they take all of their own samples while on their space mission.

Space poses unique challenges when it comes to data collection. For MARROW, unique sample collection techniques are used to better preserve the samples’ components.

“Special methods have been developed to take the measurements while in space,” says Trudel. “A number of technological innovations have been necessary to pull it all off.”

The study also embodies many firsts, explains Dr. Trudel.

“Our study is the first to measure changes in fat content of the bone marrow”, he explains. “It’s also the first direct measure of human carbon monoxide production in space, as well as the first direct measure of red blood cells’ adaptation to microgravity.”

The MARROW project is about mid-way to completion, ending in 2021. On June 6, a delegation from the CSA is scheduled for a site visit and mid-term review of MARROW at the Bone and Joint Research Laboratory, of which Dr. Trudel is director. The final participating astronauts return to Earth in 2020, with the study reaching its conclusion in 2021.

“We’re excited that our findings may impact health care here on Earth, as well as safeguard the well-being of astronauts on space missions in the future,” Trudel explains. “Even the upcoming opening of space tourism can benefit from the data.”

For those planning a trip to Mars, you can now breathe easy.


Main photo: Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are participating in Dr. Guy Trudel’s MARROW study. Credit: University of Ottawa

The Soyuz rocket takes off from a cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Astronauts participating in the MARROW study were on board the Soyuz rocket that lifted off from the Baikanour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA


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