Press Release

What’s The Link Between Astronauts and Osteoporosis?

By SpaceRef Editor
May 31, 2006
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What’s The Link Between Astronauts and Osteoporosis?

Bone Research in Space Symposium, June 2, IOF World Congress on Osteoporosis

Toronto, Canada May 31, 2006

Though most people may not think of it, bedridden patients and astronauts share something in common: progressive bone loss. Immobile patients lose bone density because they don’t exercise muscles that would otherwise build skeletal strength through motion. Astronauts also face long periods of immobility, in addition to zero gravity, which negatively affects bone cell function.

On June 2, 2006, space explorers and earth-bound medical experts will examine the links between immobility and bone health at the Bone Research in Space Symposium, which will be held in Toronto, Canada, as part of the International Osteoporosis Foundation (IOF) World Congress on Osteoporosis (IOF WCO). Canadian Space Agency astronaut and physician Dr. Dave Williams, who is the first Canadian to have lived in both the ocean and space, is one of the panel of Symposium experts.

“As we enter the latter half of the Bone and Joint Decade it is exciting to think about the potential benefits of using space technology and countermeasures to prevent osteoporosis in our aging population,” Williams said. “Understanding the protective effect of appropriate nutrition, calcium supplements and exercise in combination with medications will be important for astronauts particularly on long duration flights and future exploration missions to the Moon and Mars. Similar approaches may help maintain bone density in the elderly and possibly reduce the profound health consequences of osteoporosis.”

The Symposia culminates months of intensive preparation by the International Space Life Sciences Working Group (ISPLSWG), chaired by Dr. Ronald Zernicke, from the University of Calgary. Numerous international space agencies will participate, representing countries including Canada, the United States, Ukraine, Japan, Germany, Italy, France, and the Netherlands. According to Zernicke, the Symposia will identify country-specific agendas concerning terrestrial and space-based bone research, as well as opportunities for collaboration.

Dr. Nicole Buckley, director for Life and Physical Sciences at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), says astronauts in space can lose up to two percent of bone mass per month, which is several times more than is lost by patients with osteoporosis. The most dramatic bone loss is observed in studies with “terranauts,” i.e. healthy, young Earth-bound volunteers who lie flat without exercising for extended periods of time. These studies have shown that completely immobilized bones can lose up to 15% of mineral density within three months, roughly equal to the time required for a one-way trip to Mars.

Buckley says bone cell formation depends largely on the effects of weight, both through gravity and exercise. When weight is suppressed, she adds, bones undergo a process of demineralization accompanied by a loss of calcium to the blood.

“This is an important but under-recognized issue for bone health,” said Professor René Rizzoli, chairman of the IOF Committee of Scientific Advisors, chairman, the IOF World Congress on Osteoporosis 2006 Scientific Committee and one of the speakers at the space symposium. “Bone is a living tissue, and must be ‘stressed’ to maintain strength. If bones are immobile for long periods, as occurs in space but also in bedridden patients, the individual will lose a substantial amount of muscle and bone mass, which may have serious repercussions.”

Osteoporosis also involves demineralization and calcium loss, albeit by different mechanisms induced by hormonal changes, particularly reductions in circulating estrogen. Even so, treatment options including exercise, nutritional supplements, and certain drugs appear to reduce bone loss among both astronauts and earth-bound patients, suggesting key synergies and opportunities for mutual intervention.

The Symposia will feature exciting new research concerning the effects of bed-rest on bone loss, in addition to studies showing that externally applied vibrations stimulate bone regeneration for both astronauts and patients alike. Numerous other topics will also be addressed, including the role of nutrition in space flight, and the effects of exercise countermeasures. “The space community has really been pushing for this meeting,” Zernicke said. “The symposia will give us the opportunity to sit together, find out where we are now in terms of the current state of the research, and where we need to go as a group.”

  • 09:00 – 09:10 Introduction and Overview. Ron Zernicke, Chair
  • 09:10 – 09:30 “Bone structure, evolution and disuse”, René Rizzoli, Switzerland
  • 09:30 – 09:50 Muscle and bone in weightlessness, Dieter Felsenberg, Germany
  • 09:50 – 10:10 “Bone Health: The Role of Nutrition During Space Flight”, Scott Smith, USA
  • 10:10 – 10:30 “New models for bone investigations in Space”, Laurence Vico, France
  • 10:30 – 10:50 BREAK
  • 10:50 – 11:10 “Can Mechanical Factors Serve to Preserve the Musculoskeletal System of Astronauts?”, Clinton Rubin, USA
  • 11:10 – 11:30 “A unexpected role for the immunoregulatory molecules CD200:CD200R in the control of bone development”, Reginald Gorczynski, Canada
  • 11:30 – 11:50 “Exercise countermeasures: Can they prevent bone loss?”, Peter Cavanagh, USA
  • 11:50 – 12:00 Outcomes from ISLSWG Bone Research in Space Workshop held May 31 – June 1, 2006 Designated Workshop speakers
  • 12:00 – 12:30 “Bone loss during space flight, perspective of an astronaut”, David Williams, Astronaut, Canada


Osteoporosis, in which the bones become porous and break easily, is one of the world’s most common and debilitating diseases. The result: pain, loss of movement, inability to perform daily chores, and in many cases, death. One out of three women over 50 will experience osteoporotic fractures, as will one out of five men 1, 2, 3. Unfortunately, screening for people at risk is far from being a standard practice. Osteoporosis can, to a certain extent, be prevented, it can be easily diagnosed and effective treatments are available.

The International Osteoporosis Foundation (IOF) is the only worldwide organization dedicated to the fight against osteoporosis. It brings together scientists, physicians, patient societies and corporate partners. Working with its 172 member societies in 85 locations, and other healthcare-related organizations around the world, IOF encourages awareness and prevention, early detection and improved treatment of osteoporosis.

  • Melton U, Chrischilles EA, Cooper C et al. How many women have osteoporosis? Journal of Bone Mineral Research, 1992; 7:1005-10
  • Kanis JA et al. Long-term risk of osteoporotic fracture in Malmo. Osteoporosis International, 2000; 11:669-674
  • Melton LJ, et al. Bone density and fracture risk in men. JBMR. 1998; 13:No 12:1915

IOF World Congress on Osteoporosis, held every two years, is the only global congress dedicated specifically to all aspects of osteoporosis. Besides the opportunity to learn about the latest science and developments in diagnosis, treatment and the most recent socio-economic studies, participants have the chance to meet and exchange ideas with other physicians from around the world. All aspects of osteoporosis will be covered during the Congress which will comprise lectures by invited speakers presenting cutting edge research in the field, and a large number of oral presentations and poster sessions selected from submitted abstracts. More than 70 Meet the Expert Sessions covering many practical aspects of diagnosis and management of osteoporosis are also on the program.

The Canadian Space Agency, established in 1989, is responsible for coordinating all civilian space-related scientific and technological research policies and programs for the Government of Canada. The CSA leverages international cooperation to champion world-class scientific research and industrial development for the benefit of humanity.


For more information on osteoporosis and IOF please visit:

For further information, please contact:

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski
Head of Communications
International Osteoporosis Foundation
Tel. +41 22 994 0100
Fax. +41 22 994 0101

Andrew Leopold
Weber Shandwick Worldwide
400-207 Queen’s Quay West
Tel: +1 416 964 6444

SpaceRef staff editor.