During the past year, much of NASA’s research efforts have been focused on the promotion of astronaut health and safety. The NASA Glenn Research Center manages several projects involved in developing countermeasures to reduce health problems caused by prolonged exposure to microgravity. Under contract with Glenn, Physical Sciences Inc. is working on the low-power, confocal imaging of protein localization in living cells to better understand osteoporosis in astronauts. Currently in Phase II, the project utilizes a compact laser and fluorescence microscopy to study the activity of bone cells.
The project was initiated 2 years ago when Glenn identified the need for better tools to facilitate biological research experiments using the Light Microscopy Module (LMM) on the International Space Station. The LMM is a computerized microscope that is part of the Fluids Integrated Rack (FIR) and was developed to study fluid physics in microgravity. Through a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) solicitation, Physical Sciences Inc. was selected to perform the work.
The basic requirements for the new LMM tools were a compact laser (with a wavelength of approximately 600 nm) and fluorescent agents. The laser had to be reliable, yet small enough to meet the strict weight, power, and size requirements for space station flight hardware. Fluorescent agents, along with a line of bone cells with clearly visible markers, are necessary for fluorescence microscopy. This technique monitors cellular activity and protein interaction by sending out a colored beam of light to the bone cells, which return the light in a different color.
Confocal imaging technology will improve scientists’ understanding of the effects of osteoporosis as it occurs in astronauts at accelerated rates. In the absence of gravity, osteoblasts do not readily rebuild bone cells. According to the project’s contracting officer, Dr. DeVon Griffin, astronauts typically lose about 1 to 2 percent of their bone mass each month in the weight-bearing areas of their bodies. If this bone loss were to occur throughout along-duration spaceflight to Mars, the astronauts would likely land on Mars or return to Earth with a severely damaged skeletal system.
Phase II of the imaging project began in January 2005. So far, Physical Sciences Inc. has procured the compact laser and successfully established a stable cell line using DNA from protein fusion. After manipulating the genetic structures of the cells, the company has been photographing and analyzing images of cell activity. Physical Sciences Inc. also is integrating and testing a second laser to be added to the imaging system. As this research continues, increased knowledge of bone cell activity will result in more efficient countermeasures to protect astronaut health and may even help medical researchers prevent osteoporosis in people living on Earth.
Fluorescent images of the two types of cells being studied. Left: HEK 293, human kidney transfected with the HcRed-β-actin fusion protein construct. Right: UMR106-01, rat osteosarcoma cells transfected with the HcRed-β-actin fusion protein construct. The method for fusing the fluorophore to the cells was developed under this SBIR award.
Find out more about exploration systems and human system research and technology development at Glenn: http://exploration.grc.nasa.gov/hsrt/
Dr. DeVon W. Griffin, 216–433–8109, Devon.W.Griffin@nasa.gov;
and Marsha M. Nall, 216–433–5374, Marsha.M.Nall@nasa.gov
Author: Emily R. Groh
Headquarters program office: Exploration Systems
Programs/Projects: Human Health and Performance
Last updated: October 16, 2006
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