June 2 (UPI) -- While The Muppets sent pigs into space, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, are opting for rodents in order to test the protective effects of an experimental bone drug.
Researchers at UCLA, will be sending 40 mice to the International Space Station to test an experimental drug based on the bone-building protein NELL-1. When the mice return to Earth, it will be the first time American researchers will bring back live rodents from the International Space Station.
The mice will be brought back to UCLA and continue to get injections of NELL-1 for another four weeks. The remaining half of the mice will stay at the International Space Station and will also receive an additional four weeks of NELL-1 treatment.
"To prepare for the space project and eventual clinical use, we chemically modified NELL-1 to stay active longer," Dr. Ben Wu, chair of the division of advanced prosthodontics in the UCLA School of Dentistry and professor in the schools of engineering and medicine, said in a press release. "We also engineered the NELL-1 protein with a special molecule that binds to bone, so the molecule directs NELL-1 to its correct target, similar to how a homing device directs a missile."
Adults typically lose about 0.5 percent of their bone mass annually after the age of 50. However, bone loss increases significantly in space due to the lack of gravity -- bone density is improved by physical activity that puts pressure on bones to help them stay strong.
UCLA researchers have been testing NELL-1 for more than 18 years and are now expanding the NELL-1 research into space. NELL-1 was discovered in 1996 to have a powerful effect on tissue-specific stem cells that create bone-building cells known as osteoblasts.
Stem cells exposed to NELL-1 create osteoblasts that are more effective at building bone, and reduces the function of osteoclasts that break down bone.
The drug may help people with bone damage or loss from a traumatic bone injury such as injured military service members and astronauts who lose bone density while in space.
"The preparations have been very exciting; we've had conference calls with NASA's Ames Research Center every two weeks to go over all the fine details," said Dr. Jin Hee Kwak, an assistant professor of orthodontics in the UCLA School of Dentistry. "Everything is choreographed down to the tiniest details, such as whether you're going to fill a syringe half way or all the way -- that small amount affects the total weight of the rocket."
SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft is currently targeted to blast off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday, June 3, after the launch was delayed Thursday because of lightning.
The launch will be the first time UCLA scientists send rodents to the International Space Station. After living in microgravity and receiving NELL-1 injections for about four weeks, half of the rodents will return from space and land in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja, Calif.