Shuttle blasts student research into space

by Hilary Thomson
Staff writer

UBC Radiology resident Kevin Forkheim's research is really taking off -- into space, that is.

Forkheim's osteoporosis research project was recently blasted into orbit aboard NASA's space shuttle Discovery.

Astronauts conducted a four-day test to see if a vitamin D derivative can help reverse the bone loss that occurs in microgravity.

"Astronauts lose up to two per cent of bone mass per month in space," says Forkheim, who started his five-year residency in July. "We want to be able to keep astronauts healthy on longer journeys such as missions to Mars which may take more than two years to complete."

Information gained from the space experiment may aid the development of osteoporosis treatment on Earth. The bone loss that occurs in space is identical to that experienced by osteoporosis patients except it occurs more quickly in space, says Forkheim.

Loss of gravity in space reverses the body's natural programming to build bone that can bear weight and strain.

Part of NASA's studies on aging, the experiment involved introducing the vitamin derivative to bone-building cells or osteoblasts that were taken from mice. It is hoped that the vitamin can help osteoblast cells function better in space.

The experiment builds on an earlier project, carried on the November 1996 space shuttle Columbia, which showed the osteoblasts reproduced and processed nutrients more slowly than on Earth. The cells also changed their structure in space.

That experiment earned Forkheim a prize as first runner-up for the Aerospace Medicine Association's Young Investigator of the Year award last spring.

About 1.5 million Canadians suffer from osteoporosis.

The disease is characterized by loss of bone mass and deterioration of bone tissue.

One in four women and one in eight men over the age of 50 get the disease, which leads to increased bone fragility and fractures -- most often at the spine, wrist or hip.

"About 70 per cent of hip fractures are due to osteoporosis," Forkheim says. "Between 20 and 30 per cent of patients who sustain a hip fracture die within the year from complications related to the fracture."

Forkheim, who also holds a master's degree in Computer Science, says he has always been a space enthusiast.

Also interested in artificial intelligence in medicine, he won a Medical Research Council scholarship to attend the International Space University in Vienna to contribute to the design of a computerized medical centre in space.

The International Space Station and astronauts on missions of long duration would use the centre to treat and prevent medical problems in space.

Forkheim is conducting the osteoporosis experiment with a gynecology researcher in Israel.