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Why is the U of M sending bones into space?

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The University of Minnesota's latest piece of medical research has seen it send bones into space.

Bruce Hammer Ph.D, the principal investigator at the U's Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, has sent bone cells to the International Space Station (ISS) on a SpaceX-9 rocket on Monday morning.

The goal? To test the accuracy of a device they have designed to simulate "microgravity" – essentially weightlessness – and the effect it can have on the function of human bone cells.

It's known that astronauts lose bone mass when they're in space, at a faster rate than humans on earth lose it when suffering from a disease like osteoporosis. Studying the phenomenon could have implications for how to treat bone diseases.

"Studying bone cell function in reduced gravity provides a fantastic laboratory for discovering how these cells develop a deranged metabolism," a U of M announcement says. "This has implications for developing the next generation of drugs to remediate osteoporosis."

How could it help human health?

Hammer and his team have grown the bone cells and tested them using something called "magnetic levitation," which is designed to simulate the effects of space microgravity right here on earth.

The cells are being sent to the ISS to confirm whether magnetic levitation has the same impact on bone cells as the reduced gravity of space, so in future the tests can be done on earth, rather than outside the atmosphere.

"If we can demonstrate that magnetic levitation mimics microgravity, we then have a tool to do space biology on earth," Hammer said. "Sending this experiment to the ISS took five years of effort so it’s really rewarding to see this experiment take flight."

According to NASA's overview of the study, the findings could prove illuminating when treating the 18 million or so Americans who lose bone mass either through extended bed rest/lack of mobility, menopause, or bone disorders.

Understanding the way in which the mass is lost, NASA says, could lead to better preventative care or therapeutic treatments for people with osteopenia or osteoporosis, or people who are bedridden.

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