Canadian astronaut takes part in study of bone marrow health in space

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By Amelia Buchanan

Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronaut Dr. David Saint-Jacques is taking part in a made-in-Ottawa experiment on bone marrow health during his six-month mission on the International Space Station.

The study, led by Dr. Guy Trudel, is called MARROW, and will provide world-first insights into how space travel affects the bone marrow, which produces blood cells. These findings will inform longer space missions, and may also help patients back on Earth who spend weeks in bed recovering from illness.

“Aboard the International Space Station, I will be participating in hundreds of science experiments on behalf of researchers from around the world,” says Dr. Saint-Jacques. “I will conduct Canadian experiments which focus on health sciences, like MARROW. As a doctor, I have a strong interest for that type of research that has concrete impacts on the lives of Canadians.”

Dr. Saint-Jacques is one of 14 astronauts who signed up to be part of the MARROW study. Breath and blood samples are taken over the course of their six-month mission in space and in the year after they return to Earth. The goal is to understand how living in space affects their bone marrow health and how it recovers upon their return.

“What astronauts go through in space is similar to what I see in my own patients,” says Dr. Trudel, a researcher and rehabilitation physician at The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre and professor at the University of Ottawa. “The low gravity in space weakens muscles and bones. The same happens to patients who spend a long time in bed in the intensive care unit.”

Many researchers travel to the Johnston Space Center to pitch their projects, hoping for astronauts to say “yes.” Dr. Trudel’s team beat the odds, with 14 astronauts signing up for MARROW in just three years.

“Very few astronauts we talked to says “no” to MARROW,” says Dr. Trudel. “Because they were so eager to sign up, everything is going much faster than I anticipated.” He expects all the data will be collected by 2020, and the results published soon after.

Not only did Dr. Saint-Jacques agree to take part in the study, but he also visited Dr. Trudel’s lab to help the team adapt their experiment for space.

“Dr. David Saint-Jacques has been a very enthusiastic supporter of MARROW,” says Dr. Trudel. “As a doctor, he could see this was an experiment that needed to be done, not only to help astronauts in space, but for patients here on Earth.”

After recruiting all 14 astronauts, work is far from over for Dr. Trudel’s team. Every day they need to be aware of what is happening on the International Space Station so they can adapt the experiment or the delivery of supplies. Dr. Trudel says MARROW remains an exciting project, full of unknowns, including what the results will be. The project was funded by the Canadian Space Agency.

“Having a Canadian astronaut aboard the space station is the most visible part of Canada’s contributions to space exploration,” says Dr. Trudel. “But Canada’s work in robotics, artificial intelligence and telemedicine are all essential to the space program and helping the next generation of astronauts achieve even longer missions.”

Amelia Buchanan is a Senior Communication Specialist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.