The Bone Biology Laboratory (BBL) began on the Texas A&M campus in 1993. In 1997, research funding from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) made it possible for the BBL to hire full time staff for day-to-day running of the lab.
The lab's director, Dr. Susan Bloomfield, currently oversees a staff that includes one half-time lab manager, an Asst. Research Scientist, five graduate students, and three undergraduates. The area of bone biology is not often found in departments like heath and kinesiology and she's happy to be in charge of it here.
"It's a kind of small area, so I'm just thrilled that it has worked out here at Texas A&M to build a strong lab group that has very bright students and a great lab manager and I get to interact with muscle physiologists in our department and with the Bone Biomechanics Laboratory in Mechanical Engineering, headed up by Dr. Harry Hogan. We've integrated a lot of muscle and bone mechanics outcomes into our research."
Much of the research at the Bone Biology Laboratory deals with bone loss that occurs while astronauts are in space. With space flight, there is a potential for bone fracture since during 6-month missions. Astronauts lose bone density 10 times faster than post-menopausal women.
The BBL has been able to collect data on changes in bone and muscle from rats exposed to reduced weight bearing, which simulates quite well the weightless environment of space. The hope is to optimize the factors during the mission to counter bone loss and address answers for the long term for astronauts once they return to Earth and normal gravity.
Under current practice, the space agency does not release medical data on astronauts to the general public. Select researchers can access those data, but it's a long and arduous process, and it usually requires grant funding from NASA, NSBRI or related agencies.
"The ability to collect data for researchers who are external to the Johnson Space Center on astronaut crew members is almost impossible." Bloomfield says. "Only a very few number of people and experiments are approved. Because so many humans are going into space and to ensure a safe working environment for future astronauts, it's my opinion that NASA may have to change the privacy rules they have regarding astronauts about private medical data. Also, astronaut time during missions is very restricted, most of it dedicated to work tasks."
Other studies performed by the Bone Biology Laboratory have been helpful for the Department of Defense as they address weight loss in the military. There is a correlation between prolonged restriction of diet calories and bone cell activity in the body.
This type of research is useful for the armed services addressing issues with overweight people enlisting in the service. And it will also have effects on career officers who usually don't get the same amount of exercise they did in their younger days.
"With chronic dieting, you have negative impact on bone," Bloomfield says. "People who lose a lot of weight rapidly also lose some bone mass. That's OK if you talking about an obese person who usually starts with higher bone density but we are concerned about those near-normal weight persons who lose weight dramatically during basic training or career personnel."
With the addition of an assistant research scientist to the lab, Dr. Florence Lima, the types of studies the BBL can perform has grown exponentially. In addition, the growing skills of the BBL graduate student group is moving the lab into more sophisticated techniques. In the next five years, Dr. Bloomfield sees the lab moving into more of a mechanistic direction, and possibly applying for NIH (National Institutes of Health) funding.
The basic need of curiosity and wondering why something works the way it does fuels Dr. Bloomfield and her staff as they help the goal of success in space flight.
"Doing these NSBRI funded studies is a fun way to be involved with the space program, in solving problems important to astronaut health. And it's really fun for the undergraduates to be involved in the projects. Plus the chance to work with really bright students is probably my favorite part of the job."
Susan A. Bloomfield, Ph.D. - Director
Harry A. Hogan, Ph.D. - Collaborating Lab Director