Studies include osteoporosis, immune responses in older people, and alcohol-related problems.

NIH is awarding the first round of new grants totaling just over $1.32 million under the Biomedical Research on the International Space Station (BioMed-ISS) initiative. According to this collaborative effort between NIH and NASA, researchers can explore fundamental questions about health issues in a microgravity environment that Earth-based laboratories cannot replicate. The National Laboratory at the ISS provides a virtually gravity-free environment.

“BioMed-ISS offers a novel opportunity for gaining scientific insights that would not otherwise be possible through ground-based means,” notes Stephen I. Katz, M.D., Ph.D., director of the NIH’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, and NIH liaison to NASA.

Scientists will conduct their experiments under a two-stage mechanism. The first is a ground-based preparatory phase to allow investigators to meet select milestones and technical requirements. The second is an ISS experimental phase that will include preparing the experiments for launch, working with astronauts to conduct them on the ISS, and performing subsequent data analyses on Earth.

The first round of grants for the ground-based phase is estimated to reach $1,323,000. They will be awarded as follows:

• Paola Divieti, M.D., Ph.D., Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, Boston: Dr. Divieti will study osteocytes in a gravity-free environment with the aim of uncovering new therapeutic targets for osteoporosis and related bone diseases. Weightlessness and immobility—as experienced by astronauts and bedridden, immobilized patients—can result in bone loss and a weakened skeleton. Osteocytes, the most common type of bone cell, are believed to have gravity-sensing abilities. These cells play a key role in bone remodeling, a process that is vital to skeletal health.

• Millie Hughes-Fulford, Ph.D., Northern California Institute for Research and Education, San Francisco: The immune system is suppressed in space, and a reduction in the immune response also occurs in the elderly. As a former astronaut, Dr. Hughes-Fulford aims to apply lessons learned from studies of immune cells in microgravity to a new model for investigating the loss of immune response in older women and men.

• Declan McCole, Ph.D., University of California, San Diego: Excessive alcohol use is a leading lifestyle-related cause of death in the U.S. A major factor in alcohol-related disease stems from the ability of alcohol to compromise the natural barrier function of cells in the gastrointestinal tract, increasing the movement of toxins from the intestines to other organs in the body. Using microgravity 3-D cell culture models, Dr. McCole plans to generate insights regarding the barrier properties of the intestines, and to explore how the absence of gravity affects alcohol’s ability to diminish this barrier.

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