Studying Bone Mass Loss in Microgravity

The students of Kunal Mitra share a common interest—one that leads to a promising partnership.

“NASA is always an attraction for our students,” says Mitra, program chair of the biomedical engineering department.  “So I was interested in finding an interface between biomedical engineering and space applications.”

biomedical engineering professor
Dr. Kunal Mitra, professor of biomedical engineering professor, is working with students to explore the interface between biomedical engineering and space applications.

Mitra made that connection through collaboration with a longtime associate at NASA, Dr. Daniel Woodard. They are studying bone loss in microgravity through nanoscale finite element analysis of load-bearing structures in bone.

The loss of bone mass is a major medical concern of NASA’s for long-duration, manned space flights. Astronauts, of course, are a very specific group. Yet, disuse-induced bone loss is a longstanding issue for the layperson, as well, and the practical application of the study could reach a far wider audience.

“The number of ordinary Americans, including many citizens of Florida, who suffer from disuse-induced bone loss exceeds the number of astronauts by about three orders of magnitude,” he cites.

This type of bone loss is seen in victims of spinal cord injuries, postpolio syndrome and other medical conditions, and it limits the ability of the muscles to apply loads to the bones. Mitra’s study—with funding through NASA’s Florida Space Research Program—aims to develop a geometric dataset to describe the osteon, a common structural component of bone, based on atomic force microscopy images.

“A predictive theory of the load-bearing behavior of bone based on finite element analysis will benefit health and medicine by making it possible to predict how bone will respond to time-varying loads in ambulation, exercise, injury and disuse,” Mitra says.

While it may not sound as such to the average person, conducting this research in these varying gravitational profiles is far more practical than attempting it on the ground.

“It is not feasible to perform ground-based simulation of all of these profiles required to optimize these countermeasures by a trialanderror approach,” he says.