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Researchers Find Microgravity May Inhibit Fracture Healing
August 31, 2017

Microgravity, when the pull of gravity is not very strong resulting in what is termed weightlessness, can be both a boon and a liability. In space, microgravity enables astronauts to move objects weighing hundreds of pounds with little effort. But what impact does microgravity have on healing should an astronaut suffer a knee injury or break a leg?

Mechanical loading, or forces that stimulate cellular growth for development, is required for creating cartilage, the basis for bone formation in the body. Cartilage, which does not renew itself once it breaks down or fails in the body, is developed through a process known as chondrogenic differentiation, and is then turned to bone as part of the body’s natural healing process. However, little is known about cartilage development in the absence of gravity or mechanical loads.

Now, according to information provided by the University of Missouri (MU), bioengineers have determined that microgravity may inhibit cartilage formation. Findings reveal that fracture healing for astronauts in space, as well as patients on bed rest here on Earth, could be compromised in the absence of mechanical loading.

“Cartilage tissue engineering is a growing field because cartilage does not regenerate,” said Elizabeth Loboa, dean of the MU College of Engineering and a professor of bioengineering. “Because these tissues cannot renew themselves, bioreactors, or devices that support tissue and cell development, are used in many cartilage tissue engineering applications. Some studies suggest that microgravity bioreactors are ideal for the process to take place, while others show that bioreactors that mimic the hydrostatic pressure needed to produce cartilage might be more ideal. Our first-of-its-kind study was designed to test both theories.”

In research funded by the National Space Biomedical Research Institute through NASA, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, Prof. Loboa and her team tested chondrogenic differentiation in bioreactors that simulated either microgravity or hydrostatic pressure, pressure exerted by a fluid, using human adipose, or fat cells (hASC) obtained from women.

Published recently in Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance, the study, “Comparison of Simulated Microgravity and Hydrostatic Pressure for Chondrogenesis of hASC,” revealed that cyclic hydrostatic pressure, which has been shown to be beneficial for cartilage formation, caused a threefold increase in cartilage production and resulted in stronger tissues. In contrast, microgravity was shown to decrease chondrogenic differentiation.

“Our study provides insight showing that mechanical loading plays a critical role during cartilage development,” Prof. Loboa said. “The study also shows that microgravity, which is experienced in space and is similar to patients on prolonged bed rest or those who are paralyzed, may inhibit cartilage and bone formation. Bioengineers and flight surgeons involved with astronauts’ health should consider this as they make decisions for regenerating cartilage in patients and during space travel.”

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