How NASA Uses Astronaut Pee to Hunt Osteoporosis

By Jamie Condliffe on at

When astronauts venture into space, their bones degrade because of the microgravity conditions they encounter. Currently, such bone wastage is usually diagnosed by scans—so NASA developed a new test which analyses urine to spot bone loss in its early stages.

The new technique, developed by scientists at Arizona State University in conjunction with NASA, looks for traces of bone calcium in urine. Specifically, it identifies the different concentrations of calcium isotopes in the pee, because the ratio in which they appear changes during the course of bone degradation.

To check the test works, the researchers confined a dozen healthy volunteers to bed rest for 30 days—a process which triggers bone loss. Amazingly, the urine tests could identify the initial stages of bone loss after just a week—well before any conventional medical scan could identity any changes. The results are published in PNAS.

While the finding is great news for astronauts and osteoporosis sufferers, the researchers still aren't content. Instead, they want to develop the test so it can be used to analyse how the structure of bone changes, as opposed to just measuring reductions in bone mass. If they can achieve that, it could be used to diagnose and monitor other bone-altering diseases, including cancer. [PNAS via BBC]

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