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New technology may prevent space travel bone damage



AM - Saturday, 7 October , 2006 08:23:00

Reporter: Tom Tilley


ELIZABETH JACKSON: There might be a new solution to one of the problems stopping human travel to Mars.

Bone density loss is a very real problem for astronauts who spend a lot of time in zero gravity. Its symptoms are very similar to osteoporosis.

But new technology currently being tested in the US sends a signal to the body, which makes the bones react as though they're getting normal exercise, as Tom Tilley reports.

TOM TILLEY: It's unlikely that an astronaut returning from their latest stint on the space station will start breaking bones on a regular basis.

But later in life, when normal age-related osteoporosis starts to set in, the danger can increase dramatically.

An article published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research found that crewmembers on the International Space Station lost up to two per cent of bone mass per month.

This is one of the human related factors that's stopping mankind from making the trip to Mars which would take several years for the round trip.


US inventor, Professor Clint Rubin, is working on a solution that may solve the problem.

CLINT RUBIN: Think of an astronaut, that's basically being deprived of weight bearing, or deprived of gravity, as a model for ageing.

So we've just decided, as we age, we're less and less active, and without the proper mechanical signals to the skeleton, our skeleton begins to

waste away.

Now all of a sudden, put yourself up in space, where essentially you're in a vacuum of mechanical signals, you're just not loading your skeleton at all, that in essence, it's a means of accelerated ageing.

And so, our goal, with our science and our research is to try to put those mechanical signals back into the astronauts' skeleton, so that in reality they're not going through this rapid ageing decline


TOM TILLEY: So how does this new technology work?

CLINT RUBIN: The technology is based on putting very, very small mechanical signals into the skeleton, the same sort of things that their muscle would do when they're active.

So the astronauts, when using the device for 10 minutes per day, would basically be harnessed to it, like with a very, very subtle spring.

And they'd sit there and they'd work on their laptop, or read a book while their skeleton is being stimulated.


TOM TILLEY: How long are some of these astronauts spending in the space stations?

CLINT RUBIN: So these astronauts basically are ... some of them have been up there for close to a year. But typically, once they're there for greater than 90 days, or up to six months, they're sort of risking ... they're putting their skeletons at a higher level of risk of fracture.

So again, the challenge that you've got when you're thinking about a three-year round trip to Mars, is that what happens if you're losing two per cent of your bone per month, that by the time you get to Mars, and the challenge of Mars' gravity, that if you happen to trip and break your femur, or your thighbonewhile you're up on Mars, that it's quite a long way to the nearest hospital.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Professor Clint Rubin from the State University of New York speaking to Tom Tilley.



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