It’s Val Fajardo’s dream that one day humans will make it to Mars. But first thing’s first: let’s ensure that astronauts going to the Moon will come back to Earth with their health intact.
The Brock University Assistant Professor of Kinesiology is heading up a team that’s investigating how to prevent space travellers from experiencing muscle loss and weakness, bone fragility and cognitive decline, which occur when spending time in space.
But you don’t have to be an astronaut to benefit from the team’s findings, says Fajardo, Canada Research Chair in Tissue Plasticity and Remodelling.
“The overarching goal of this research is to generate new knowledge that will reduce the risks of human space flight to keep astronauts healthy in space, while also providing insight into new strategies that can be used to preserve health on Earth,” he says.
On Tuesday, April 5, the Canadian Space Agency announced it had granted Fajardo and his team $150,000 to carry out this research, one of nine projects being conducted at universities across Canada “to ultimately better understand the effects of space on the human body.”
Fajardo’s current project builds on earlier research he and colleagues conducted for NASA which examined tissue samples from mice that had been to the International Space Station.
As they spend time in space, rodents and humans lose skeletal density at a much faster rate than we do on Earth because of reduced gravity, quickly leading to deterioration or atrophy.
To develop and maintain the musculoskeletal system, muscles and bones must undergo stress, which is why regular exercise benefits muscles, bones and overall health.
The researchers suspect that key to this muscle and bone deterioration in space is an enzyme called Glycogen synthase kinase-3, or GSK3, which is involved in a cell’s metabolism, differentiation and immunity.
In the previous NASA-supported study, master’s student Ryan Baranowski found an “overactivation” of the GSK3 enzyme in the mice samples, which the researchers believe can account for the weakening muscles.
In her NASA study, master’s student Jessica Braun found the ability to control the amount of calcium ions in muscles was impaired. Calcium is the signal muscles use to contract and produce force, but too much of it can lead to detrimental processes that ultimately lead to loss in muscle force and size.
In addition to Braun and Baranowski, the current student team also includes incoming PhD students Briana Hockey and Emily Copeland.
“With this latest research, we’re looking for how to inhibit the GSK3 enzyme in skeletal and cardiac muscles, and also in bone and in the brain,” says Fajardo.
The team will determine if lithium — a type of metal — can be used to improve muscle, bone and brain health by suppressing the GSK3 enzyme in these areas. Lithium is commonly used to treat bipolar disorder and depression and has been shown to have benefits for Alzheimer disease and other brain conditions.
“Our team will be investigating whether low and safe doses of lithium can be used to slow the effects of microgravity, and whether it can be used to accelerate the recovery upon a return to gravity,” says Fajardo.
“Astronauts exercise every day to try and counter the effects of microgravity, however, this is still not enough,” he says. “Astronauts will still experience decrements in fitness, muscle, bone and brain health. Our research will also determine whether lithium and GSK3 inhibition can amplify the effects of exercise.”
Fajardo says since space flight in many ways can be considered as a model of rapid aging, suppressing the GSK3 enzyme could form effective treatment in other age-related disorders such as sarcopenia, osteoporosis, obesity, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as potentially neurological, inflammatory and cancer diseases.
To explore these various areas is “not a solo effort,” says Fajardo. “We’ve got a team of really incredible, well-respected experts in various areas.” They include:
- Professor of Kinesiology and bone expert Wendy Ward is leading the analyses that will determine if and how the three-dimensional structure of bone and associated mineral content — outcomes that dictate the strength of the skeleton and relate to risk of fracture — respond to suppressing the GSK3 enzyme.
“The opportunities for student learning and skill-building, and the experience working as a team investigating several target tissues — bone, muscle, brain, and heart — are tremendous,” says Ward.
- Professor of Kinesiology Panagiota (Nota) Klentrou is heading up the analyses of inflammation and bone remodelling markers that dictate the magnitude and time course of the adaptations of the immune and musculoskeletal systems and how these communicate with each other.
“This grant from CSA is a dream come true for me,” says Klentrou. “We have an excellent, interdisciplinary team and an exciting opportunity to contribute to the advancement of space science and the understanding of how humans can safely explore space.”
- Associate Professor of Health Sciences Rebecca MacPherson is leading the brain health and cognitive ability arm of this work. She will examine markers related to Alzheimer’s disease pathology as well as differences in memory performance tests.
“Together with this funding, our team has the unique opportunity to explore (un)healthy aging from a variety of different angles,” says MacPherson.