Human Subjects Head To Bed To Advance CU Space Research

Published: May 10, 2005

A group of Colorado men went to bed in the name of science recently as part of a University of Colorado at Boulder study probing ways to stem muscle degeneration in both weightless astronauts and earthbound people.

According to Louis Stodieck, director of CU-Boulder's BioServe Space Technologies Center that is heading up the NASA-supported study, researchers want to understand cellular changes associated with muscle wasting. Finding the causes could lead to pharmaceutical treatments that could aid astronauts during long-term space travel, as well as people afflicted with debilitating diseases such as muscular dystrophy, cancer and AIDS, he said.

The healthy men, all between the ages of 18 and 45, agreed to kick back for 10 days at CU's Health Sciences Center in Denver for an undisclosed sum of money, remaining prone even for showers and bathroom breaks. They watched movies, surfed the Internet, played video games and had tiny amounts of tissue removed from their thigh muscles four times so researchers could study a protein called myostatin, which regulates muscle growth.

"We are interested in the molecular mechanisms underlying muscle degeneration," said Stodieck, who is an associate professor for research in aerospace engineering sciences at CU-Boulder. "The goal ultimately is to discover effective pharmaceuticals to treat the physiological causes of muscle loss."

NASA is particularly interested in muscle loss in astronauts, who may lose up to 10 percent of the muscle in their legs during even a short, 10-day space mission. Currently, astronauts on the International Space Station spend two hours each day, seven days a week exercising in an attempt to mitigate the inevitable atrophy of muscle tissue in a weightless environment, Stodieck said.

BioServe is collaborating on the study with a private pharmaceutical firm interested in developing new drugs that can block the effects of the molecular signals that would otherwise cause muscle loss. One such molecule, myostatin, was first identified in mice by Dr. Se-Jin Lee of Johns Hopkins University in 1997 and is now known to inhibit muscles from growing too large.

Funded by the pharmaceutical company, NASA and the National Institutes of Health, the study is allowing the researchers to chart myostatin levels as well as broader activity in the muscle cells of genes that are known to be involved in muscle atrophy. The preliminary results are encouraging, said Stodieck.

Founded in 1987, the CU-headquartered BioServe works with a number of industrial partnerships and is one of 12 NASA Research Partnership Centers in the United States for the Commercial Development of Space. Although the myostatin study is BioServe's first venture in human clinical research, faculty, staff and students have designed, built and flown payloads on numerous space missions to develop new or improved products through space life-sciences research.

Stodieck said BioServe hopes to fly an experiment involving mice to test pharmaceutical countermeasures to prevent muscle atrophy on a NASA space shuttle mission. NASA is planning to resume its manned space flights later this summer.