Techshot Inc. has developed the first X-ray system for the International Space Station (ISS). Known as the Bone Densitometer, the device is expected to launch to the station aboard a commercial SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft in summer 2014, where it will be used by astronauts to study bone loss in mice.
“NASA is our oldest customer,” said Techshot Executive Vice President and COO John Vellinger. “For more than 25 years, the agency has counted on us to develop tools it uses to conduct research in space. Nothing like the Bone Densitometer has ever flown before, and we deeply appreciate the trust that’s been placed in us.”
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration awarded Techshot a contract in fall 2012 to design and build the Bone Densitometer as part of an effort to increase research aboard the station that uses rodents. Many of the conditions of spaceflight that adversely affect astronauts, such as the loss of bone density, can be studied effectively using mice flown in space. As a result, researchers also hope to develop medical technology that will combat bone density loss on Earth, helping millions of seniors who suffer from osteoporosis.
Approximately the size of a consumer microwave oven, the device employs a technology called Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA). Scientists can determine the density of a bone by how well two X-ray beams with different energy levels are absorbed by it. It also can determine soft-tissue density, lean/fat ratio and total animal mass (i.e., weighing mice in space). Techshot’s DEXA scanner is based on a commercially-available product commonly used by research laboratories on Earth.
Astronauts can lose between one and two percent of their total bone mass for every consecutive month spent living in space. Crew members who might spend six to nine months traveling to Mars, for example, are at a higher risk of experiencing a life-threatening or mission-compromising fracture once they land and surface operations begin.
“Along with muscle atrophy and radiation exposure, bone loss is one of the tall poles in the tent effecting crew health on long duration missions,” said Techshot Chief Scientist Eugene Boland, Ph.D. “It’s one of the key problems we must solve before we can confidently plan for the exploration of other planets by humans.”
Based on bone scans taken pre and post-flight, NASA-funded researchers have developed exercise regimens and pharmaceutical countermeasures that are having a positive impact on astronaut bone loss during typical six-month stays aboard the station. But because no scans of people or animals have been completed during a mission, what’s less understood is when the application of a given countermeasure would be most effective. The Techshot Bone Densitometer is expected to be an essential tool in providing that missing information.
The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), a non-profit organization, also provided funding for the device’s development in 2012 – awarding Techshot a contract to begin design work prior to the start of the NASA contract. In 2005 Congress designated the U.S. research facilities aboard the station a National Laboratory. In 2011 CASIS was selected by NASA to manage and broker research in the ISS-National Laboratory, intent on developing research projects capable of improving life on Earth.
Because the effects of long-term spaceflight can mimic the effects of aging, CASIS expects pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to increase their participation in space-based research with rodents following the launch of the Bone Densitometer.
“The Bone Densitometer developed by Techshot represents a huge win for potential users of the ISS,” said CASIS Chief Operating Officer Duane Ratliff. “Through rodent research, the potential exists to better understand items of critical importance to us on the ground, including muscle wasting, osteoporosis and other disease models. This piece of hardware will be critical to the research needed to develop potential breakthroughs capable of improving life on Earth.”
“It’s gratifying to know that research using our device could one day lead to treatments that help a grandmother confidently stride to her mailbox and perhaps her astronaut granddaughter take one small step onto the surface of another world,” added Vellinger.