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Study looks to prepare astronauts for Mars while improving life on Earth

All researchers are told to shoot for the moon, but one University of Ottawa team thinks that isn’t quite far enough. U of O researchers will be working with astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS) to learn about how changes in bone marrow affect the human body—for future astronauts making the journey to Mars as well as ordinary Earthlings.

The study, called Bone Marrow Adipose Reaction: Red or White?—MARROW for short—looks at how lower gravity levels affect people’s bone marrow composition, which can in turn affect blood cell production. The report is funded entirely by the Canadian Space Agency.

The study is led by the U of O’s Dr. Odette Laneuville (PhD), professor in the Department of Biology and Faculty of Science expert in the biology of rehabilitation. and Dr. Guy Trudel,  professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and director of the Bone and Joint Research Laboratory. The research team also includes Dr. Adnan Sheikh, Ian Cameron, Tim Ramsay, Paola Sebastiani, and Alain Stintzi.

“What we’re doing is really a team effort,” said Laneuville. “This is the fruit of a collaboration between basic science and clinical study.”

Bone marrow plays a significant role in blood cell production, and so if there are any changes in the marrow, there can be significant effects—Laneuville said she noticed this in previous experiments done on Earth.

“We noticed that the marrow got filled with fat, if the fat increases too much, it will negatively impact blood cell formation,” she said. “We hypothesize that when astronauts return from an extended stay on the space station, they will present a similar problem with the marrow.”

“Mechanical force is very important to maintain bone resistance,” she said. “The lack of application of mechanical force will lead to osteoporosis, but will also affect the marrow, and could change the blood formation activity of the bone.”

Laneuville says this could explain why astronauts returning from extended trips tend to have weaker immune systems upon their return.

The study starts on Dec. 15, and will monitor and collect biological samples from astronauts on the ISS for the next 5 years.

But, despite this methodology, the researchers don’t just have their heads up in space.

“Our study is also designed to apply our findings here on earth,” she said.  “There are patients here who are bedridden, in particular our aging populations… just the fact that they’re confined to a bed could be detrimental to their marrow.”

“I think that’s the strength of our study, that it serves many different populations.”

While the study applies to current astronauts and people on Earth, it has another target—a big, red one. Currently, astronauts go to the ISS for periods of six months, except for two who will go for a full year.

“This is in preparation for trips to Mars,” said Laneuville. “Expeditions to Mars will require more than six months of exposure to microgravity.” She said that the group  still has more to learn before making the trek. “What are the consequences of this extended time in space on the human body?” she said.

Laneuville and her research team hope this study will help us find the answer.