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In May 2015, when the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific, it carried a briefcase-sized metallic container of bone cells that belong to BU researcher Paola Divieti Pajevic. The cells, which experienced the extremely low levels of gravity on the space station, could contain clues about better ways to treat osteoporosis and other conditions that cause bone loss, and also ways to support astronauts on longer missions, such as a trip to Mars.
“Everything has worked perfectly well so far,” says Divieti Pajevic, a Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine associate professor of molecular and cell biology.
By sending the cells, called osteocytes, into space, Divieti Pajevic hopes to get a better understanding of the basic biology of osteocytes. “Ultimately, we hope to identify novel genes that could someday lead to new therapeutics,” she says.
Osteocytes are of particular interest to NASA since many astronauts have lost bone mass, at a rate of about one percent per month, during space voyages. While it is clear that microgravity causes bone loss, exactly how it affects bone cells at a molecular level isn’t yet understood. The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases of the National Institutes of Health funded the project, as did the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
Up in space, the cells were frozen to halt cellular functions and preserve a snapshot of the genetic activity. That will allow Divieti Pajevic to see which gene expression levels change with extended exposure.
A version of this article originally appeared on BU Research.