Mice Medication May Mute Astronauts’ Bone Loss Woes

mice medication may mute astronauts bone loss woes.jpg Science

In a groundbreaking revelation that seems to echo the whimsical musings of British author Douglas Adams, scientists have discovered that mice could indeed play a pivotal role in our exploration of the cosmos. The health risks that astronauts face due to extended periods of time in microgravity, particularly the loss of bone mineral density (BMD), may soon have a potent countermeasure, thanks to a specially-formulated medication proven effective in preventing bone loss in mice aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

A collaborative team from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Forsyth Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts have uncovered a solution that leverages a discovery nearly three decades old. Microgravity, they found, causes a one percent drop in BMD for each month of exposure, a potentially debilitating issue for astronauts on long-term missions. To address this, the team has developed an innovative drug that not only prevents bone loss in the ISS’s rodent residents but also increases bone density, signalling a significant breakthrough for future space exploration.

Mice in Space: Decoding the Key to Bone Density Loss in Microgravity

A recent study conducted by a team from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Forsyth Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has brought to light a potential solution for one of the significant health concerns for astronauts – bone loss in microgravity. The study found that a specially-formulated medication has been successful in preventing bone loss in mice aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The findings hold promise for the future of space exploration, particularly for missions involving extended periods of microgravity.

Harnessing the Power of NELL-1

The medication used in the study is a modified version of NELL-1, a protein discovered by Dr Kang Ting, UCLA chair of orthodontics, in 1996. NELL-1 is associated with a birth defect involving overactive bone growth and has been found effective in stimulating bone growth in stem cells and animals. For the current study, the team developed a version of NELL-1 bound to bisphosphate called BP-NELL-PEG, which specifically targets bone tissues without the common side effects of bisphosphate.

Promising Results and Future Steps

Mice aboard the ISS for nine weeks showed a significant increase in bone mineral density (BMD) when administered BP-NELL-PEG, revealing the resounding success of the experiment. The experimental medication led to increased BMD in both ground and flight groups, consistent with previous NELL-1 experiments. "We conclude that BP-NELL-PEG successfully reverses osteoporotic bone loss and is a viable pharmacologic countermeasure for use in spaceflight," the researchers noted.

However, the journey to human trials seems somewhat distant. Despite the promising results, the next steps involve the analysis of live animal data and its relation to humans. The team hopes to gain insights that could aid future astronauts in recovering from extended space missions. However, it is unclear when human trials could begin, and for now, it seems astronauts will have to continue regular treadmill sessions to maintain their bone density in space.

The Potential of NELL-1 Beyond Space

While the application of NELL-1 in space is exciting, it also holds potential for those suffering from bone density diseases on Earth. The only company that appears to have reached human clinical trials using NELL-1 is Bone Biologics, which is using the protein to treat degenerative disk disease in a pilot program in Australia.


This study underlines the importance of research and innovation in tackling the health risks associated with space exploration. While the path to human trials may be long, the promise shown by NELL-1 in reversing bone loss is a significant step forward. As we continue to push the boundaries of human space travel, such breakthroughs will be crucial in ensuring the safety and health of astronauts. Moreover, the potential applications of such research could also have far-reaching implications for treating bone diseases here on Earth.

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