MARROW: Bone marrow and its cells in microgravity

Studying the effects of ageing and immobility in space with Tim Peake

Microgravity helping the rehabilitation of bedridden patients

MARROW studies the mechanisms behind the effects of immobility. Its subjects are astronauts living on the International Space Station (ISS). On Earth, discoveries will be used to combat the effects of physical inactivity and improve the rehabilitation of bedridden patients, those with reduced mobility, and seniors.

Immobility and blood cell production

Microgravity in space, like prolonged bed rest on Earth, affects the bone marrow and the blood cells it produces. When mobility decreases, the adipose cells in the bone marrow increase, affecting the production of blood cells, including red and white blood cells.

  • The decrease in red blood cells—known as anemia—leads to physical limitations, such as weakness and fatigue, and cognitive slowing. In the long term, it is associated with decreased quality of life and early death.
  • One of the functions of white blood cells is to defend the body from infections. If their functioning is impaired, the body is more vulnerable to infections. Poor white blood cell function is also linked with increased sensitivity to radiation, which may have consequences for astronauts, who are exposed to high radiation levels in space.

Where do astronauts come in?

Ten astronauts will be taking part in the study. Before and after their respective flights, they will undergo magnetic resonance scans of the lower spine. In addition, before, during and after their stay on the ISS, blood and breath samples will be collected.

Jeff Williams collects a breath sample for MARROW. (Credit: NASA)

Launched in space in 2015, MARROW is led by Dr. Guy Trudel, rehabilitation physician at The Ottawa Hospital, and Dr. Odette Laneuville, both of the Bone and Joint Research Laboratory of the University of Ottawa. Co-investigators and key employees include Dr. Adnan Sheikh, Dr. Ian Cameron, Dr. Alain Stintzi, Dr. Tim Ramsay, Hakim Louati and Theresa Backlund of the University of Ottawa, as well as Dr. Paola Sebastiani of Boston University.

The study is funded by the Canadian Space Agency.

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