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When the space shuttle Atlantis launches later this week on the NASA program’s final mission, Carolina research will be along for the ride.

A team from the UNC-Chapel Hill/N.C. State University joint biomedical engineering department has painstakingly prepared an experiment aboard Atlantis aimed at revealing strategies to protect future astronauts from bone loss during extended exposure to low-gravity.

The project also could lead to new treatments for osteoporosis, the debilitating bone disease that afflicts about 1 out of 5 American women over 50.

Not only is the mission a milestone in the history of space exploration, but also for Ted Bateman, Ph.D., associate professor in the UNC/NCSU department, who has been involved in numerous spaceflight studies.

In addition to its human crew, Atlantis will host 30 of its smallest passengers – mice that might help humans one day travel far beyond the moon. The study will explore how weightlessness in space affects mouse bone tissue at the molecular level.

In space, rapid bone loss, an accelerated osteoporosis, results from removing gravitational loading. Such exposure will be unavoidable for interplanetary missions such as a round-trip to Mars, explains Bateman.

“We’ve known for quite a while, since the 1970s and the Skylab missions, that astronauts are going to lose bone on these extended missions,” he says. “When astronauts return, the recovery is incomplete. On extended missions, beyond six months up to 3 years, such as on a Mars mission, this loss is going to be substantial.”

Bateman notes that many of the cellular mechanisms that cause bone loss in space also cause regular bone loss. “So what we can study in accelerated fashion in microgravity can help osteoporosis patients here on Earth,” he says.

Bateman’s project includes colleagues at the University of Colorado and Harvard University.

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