Probing spaceflight conditions to help solve age-related musculoskeletal decline

By studying the impacts of space travel on bone and muscle tissues, biomedical engineering researcher Michael Friedman, Ph.D., investigates how genetics influence age-related bone and muscle loss

Michael Friedman, Ph.D.
Michael Friedman, Ph.D.

Recent forays into civilian space travel have placed a new premium on understanding how the body responds to conditions outside Earth’s atmosphere. 

And knowing how bone and muscle respond to zero-gravity conditions is also relevant to those with no intention of leaving the planet.

Michael Friedman, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in VCU’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, is conducting experiments to discover genetic factors that may determine how bone and muscle tissues deteriorate in the low-gravity conditions of spaceflight. 

These insights will shed new light on ways to address age-related musculoskeletal decline.

“As we get older and become less physically active, we suffer the same bone and muscle loss that astronauts in space do,” he said. “The difference is that in space, this bone and muscle loss is accelerated. But any interventions we discover for preventing bone and muscle loss during spaceflight can be applied to bone and muscle loss that occurs when physical activity is decreased on Earth.”

Friedman has received funding from NASA’s Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) to study how genetic factors may influence bone and muscle response to microgravity.  

It is well known that spaceflight decreases bone and muscle mass, Friedman said, which leads to weakness and increased risk of bone fracture. “What we want to know now,” he explained, “is whether genetic factors naturally protect some people from the negative effects of spaceflight on the bones and muscles.”

To help answer this question, Friedman will observe genetically diverse mice in conditions similar to those experienced by humans during spaceflight. Friedman will then measure changes in the subjects’ gene expression in response to three weeks in a microgravity-like environment.

“All of the genes in tissue cells vary in response to conditions,” he said. “In this study, we will measure the activity of each individual gene and assess which ones are more affected by the intervention.” 

Friedman’s study looks at genetically varied subjects, unlike previous NASA space missions, which have focused on genetically identical subjects (similar to human twins). “Civilian space travel means a more diverse group of people will go into space, so we need research that accounts for genetic diversity, such as this project,” he said.

At the end of the yearlong study, Friedman will deliver to NASA a list of genes that appear to be most affected by limited movement. These data will assist in translational research focused on gene-based orthopedic therapies for space travelers, and for those on Earth experiencing limited or reduced physical mobility.