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Wake Forest Baptist Researcher Awarded NASA Grant to Study Effects of Space Travel on Hip and Knee Joints

Jeffrey S. Willey, Ph.D., assistant professor of radiation oncology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, has been awarded a grant by NASA’s Space Biology Program to study how space flight can cause degeneration of skeletal joints and to test ways to prevent this damage.

The grant was one of 26 awarded to researchers at 17 institutions in nine states. When fully implemented, funding for the Wake Forest Baptist project and others will total approximately $12.6 million.

The goal of the Space Biology Program is to uncover basic knowledge that other NASA scientists and engineers can use to solve problems relating to human exploration of space or that could lead to new biological tools or applications on Earth. Research projects will be performed on the International Space Station.

“Our project specifically will examine how near-weightlessness during long space missions affects skeletal joints,” said Willey, who joined the Wake Forest Baptist faculty in 2012.

“Both the reduced gravity and increased exposure to radiation, such as that from solar flares, during space flights can damage the hip and knee joints. That damage could increase the risk of developing arthritis or bone fractures during the flight or after returning to earth. However, the extent and exact cause of damage to these joints hasn’t been studied and it isn’t known if the joint tissues can recover.”

The Wake Forest Baptist study is designed to compare a group of mice kept on earth under weightless conditions to a group that will be kept on the International Space Station for 30 days. Damage to the hip and knee joint structure will be assessed through imaging techniques, engineering devices that measure tissue strength and identification of the molecules that cause the damage.

The team will also determine if treadmill running or climbing can reverse any of the hip and knee joint damage caused by being in the weightless space environment.

“We also hope to gain insights into how joint degradation develops in wheelchair-bound spinal cord injury patients, and how it can be prevented,” Willey said.

The Space Biology Program is managed by the Space Life and Physical Sciences Division in NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington.

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