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Bone research in space engages dental faculty

February 19, 2015

By Craig Palmer

Research: Studies aboard International Space Station will allow astronauts to test the ability of a bone-forming molecule to direct stem cells to induce bone formation. Photo by NASA
International Space Station
– A bone growth research mission involving UCLA dental faculty and "initial seed funding" from the AAO Foundation is scheduled to dock here in 2016.

The mission will allow astronauts on the space station and scientists on Earth to test a potential new therapy for accelerating bone growth in humans, according to announcements by the foundation of the American Association of Orthodontists, NASA and UCLA. The research team includes Drs. Kang Ting, Ben Wu and Jin Hee Kwak, UCLA faculty members.

Dr. Ting, professor and chair in the Section of Orthodontics at the UCLA School of Dentistry, was involved in AAOF-funded research projects concerned with bone loss ailments in the mid/late 1990s and later discovered the NELL-1, a bone-forming molecule, which led to a National Institutes of Health grant and to the ISS mission, "Systemic NELL-1 therapy for Spaceflight-induced Osteoporosis." Dr. Wu, a professor of bioengineering and dentistry, modified the NELL-1 molecule to make it useful for treating osteoporosis. Dr. Kwak, an assistant professor of dentistry, will manage the study's daily operations.

UCLA faculty: Drs. Kang Ting, Chia Soo, Ben Wu and Jin Hee Kwak, the research team behind the Systemic Therapy of NELL-1 for Spaceflight-induced Osteoporosis; International Space Station study may help to identify key characteristics of the NELL-1 protein for use in future bone growth treatments on Earth. Photo by Peter Bracke
The four-person UCLA research team, which will begin ground operations this year, hopes the study will provide new insights into the prevention of bone loss or osteoporosis as well as the regeneration of massive bone defects that can occur in wounded military personnel. Chia Soo, M.D., a UCLA professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery and orthopedic surgery, will lead the UCLA team. Dr. Soo is a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research, one of the project supporters, and research director for UCLA Operation Mend, which provides medical care for wounded warriors.

"NELL-1 holds tremendous hope not only for preventing bone loss but one day even restoring healthy bone," said Dr. Ting. "For patients who are bed bound and suffering from bone loss, it could be life-changing." He cited the AAO Foundation as "the very first group that put not only their support but also their trust in an orthodontic junior faculty 18 years ago and proved that reaching for the sky – or heading into space – is not a dream but rather a reality 18 years later."

Spaceflight: A bone study mission set for 2016 at International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory onboard SpaceXDragon capsule. Photo by NASA
UCLA received grant funding from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space to lead the research mission, the school's Jan. 22 announcement said. The research is also supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health. Additional funding and support are provided by the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA, the UCLA School of Dentistry, UCLA department of orthopaedic surgery and the UCLA Orthopaedic Hospital Research Center.

The UCLA team will oversee the ground operations of the mission in tandem with a flight operation coordinated by CASIS and NASA.

For more information see the AAO Foundation news page and visit UCLA.edu and nasa.gov.