Exploring antigravity’s effects on the human body
Last month, the Faculty’s gaze was fixed on the stars as Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronaut Dr. David Saint-Jacques made his way to the International Space Station for his first space mission. While uOttawa may not have alumni on board, we do have several CSA-funded research projects on the go, which are designed to help space travellers and Earth dwellers alike.
The MARROW study
Six months on the ISS may seem like long time by today’s standards, but the future of space travel is deep space exploration, with voyages expected to last up to three years. This will come with a number of challenges, many of which include understanding the effects of microgravity on the human body. A group of scientists at uOttawa is looking specifically at bone marrow, and the Canadian Space Agency’s newest space traveller, Dr. David Saint-Jacques, is the study’s latest participant.
Bone marrow is a vital organ because it is where blood cells are created. The hypothesis is that due to there being less force on bones in microgravity, the production of blood cells may be affected. The researchers have hypothesized that changing proportions of bone, fat and of blood-producing marrow may lead to less room for blood production, weaker bones, and anemia caused by fewer blood cells making it to the bloodstream.
Led by Dr. Guy Trudel – University of Ottawa professor, director of the uOttawa Bone and Joint Research Centre, and physiatrist at The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre – the MARROW study is funded by the CSA. MARROW is looking to understand how to reverse and prevent diminished bone marrow and blood count in space travellers. At the same time, Dr. Trudel’s team wants to understand whether microgravity mimics the experience of people here on Earth, such as those who are bedridden or immobile.
“The prospect of playing such a key role in the health of future space travelers is incredibly exciting,” says Dr. Trudel. “But what makes this work even more satisfying is knowing that it also has the potential to benefit so many people back here on Earth, including the patients I see every day at The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre.”
MARROW researchers have been collecting blood and breath samples from space since December 2015. In that time, eight astronauts have completed the study and six others are in various phases of the project. Dr. Saint-Jacques, the 14th and final participant in the study, spent time at uOttawa’s Faculty of Medicine a few years ago to help adapt the experiment for space. He has also received training from MARROW researchers on how to properly collect, package and store samples.
“These measurements we are collecting are very precious; should a measure fail anywhere in the chain of collection, storage and transportation, there is no second chance for repeating it,” says Dr. Trudel. “I definitely trust that the future of our study is in extremely good hands with Dr. Saint-Jacques.”
The five-year study will end mid-2020.
Dr. Bernard Jasmin’s lab: microgravity and muscle atrophy
Using human trials, animal models and cell-based studies, lead investigator Dr. Bernard Jasmin – Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and uOttawa Professor – and his research team are investigating the mechanisms that cause skeletal muscle atrophy. The team’s ultimate goal is to develop novel therapeutics that could limit, reverse, or even prevent atrophy before it starts.
When an astronaut spends extended periods of time in space, microgravity causes the onset of skeletal muscle atrophy. This catabolic process occurs when there is less demand on muscles, causing the body to think it needs less muscle mass. As a result, existing muscle cells break down proteins faster than producing new ones, ultimately causing the astronaut to lose muscle size and strength.
Muscle atrophy is also a significant issue for people back on Earth, particularly for people with muscle wasting diseases like various forms of Muscular Dystrophy and patients with diseases such as diabetes, AIDS and cancer as well as those confined to prolonged bed rest.
Experimentally designed bed-rest studies are looking to discover whether various combinations of micronutrient cocktails and exercise can have beneficial effects on skeletal muscle after extended periods of inactivity. Similar studies are being conducted with dry immersion, which has human subjects floating in water on a rubber mattress for different time periods to mimic microgravity. These human trials are conducted in partnership with collaborators at the Université de Montpellier and the micronutrient bed-rest study is co-funded by the CSA, the Centre national d’études spatiales (CNES) and the European Space Agency (ESA).
“International collaborations allow us to combine and benefit from extremely diverse sets of knowledge and expertise,” says Dr. Jasmin. “Given that there are no borders in space, it only makes sense to have an international team working on a project like this.”
“In addition, these international collaborations allow for our trainees to become involved in cutting-edge space research,” he adds.
The knowledge produced by these studies will not only inform Canadian health care professionals on the best protocols to counteract skeletal muscle atrophy in clinical settings, but could ultimately play a key role in the future of space travel.