Spinoff is NASA's annual publication featuring successfully commercialized NASA technology. This commercialization has contributed to the development of products and services in the fields of health and medicine, consumer goods, transportation, public safety, computer technology, and environmental resources.

What happens to bones after months in microgravity? The answers could offer new insights into healthcare on the ground. But since research space is at a premium on the International Space Station (ISS), cutting-edge equipment is needed that can help ground-based researchers connect with the orbiting lab. When it came to studying bone density, NASA wanted a scanner that wouldn't expose the astronauts using it to harmful radiation.

Techshot worked with NASA and CASIS to develop a commercial bone densitometer suitable for operation on the ISS. The device, called Bone D, is primarily used by companies to study the effects of microgravity on mice.

Part of the challenge was that much of the research hardware on the ISS is growing out of date.

It is important that any research equipment added to the ISS be similar to tools used on the ground to allow for comparable test results, and to justify the extra expense of sending trials to space. As a part of its upgrade effort, the Agency turned to the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to help get newer equipment ready for space.

Since 2011, CASIS has been responsible for lining up commercial clients for the ISS. CASIS selects projects based on commercial proposals, and provides funding from a $3 million budget. The organization also connects clients with additional investors.

For equipment that researchers could use to study bone health in microgravity — particularly by scanning the bodies of small animals such as mice — CASIS got in touch with Greenville, IN-based Techshot, which has more than 25 years of experience with NASA. Techshot, awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract, determined that an existing method for measuring bone density — known as dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) — was a good starting point. With funding from NASA and CASIS, the company began an 18-month sprint to build and qualify a DXA device for use on the ISS.

Techshot started with a device widely used by biomedical researchers to take X-rays of rodents, called the GE Lunar PIXImus X-ray densitometer. In order to fit into the hardware racks aboard the ISS, the company had to modify the device to make it smaller and lighter. Techshot was able to keep the same software, operating system, and display, allowing ground-based scientists to make apples-to-apples comparisons between ISS scans with those taken on Earth.

Through an agreement with NASA, astronauts conduct the experiments that use Techshot's bone densitometer. The company maintains a payload operations center from which it can monitor its space-based equipment and download data in real time.

Wary of a radiation-emitting device in close proximity to the ISS crewmembers, the company equipped the densitometer with extra lead shielding, and included a switch to ensure the device does not function unless secured into its assigned locker on the station.

With a bone-scanning device operational on the ISS as of April 2015, researchers for the first time have the ability to observe changes in test animal musculature and bone density in space in real time, a boon for biologists and pharmaceutical companies interested in developing treatments for musculoskeletal ailments.

Today, the bone densitometer, dubbed Bone D, is a permanent resident of EXPRESS Rack 7 on the ISS. Right now, it's only being used for rodent research, although it's possible other living creatures could be scanned with it in the future. NASA is committing a significant amount of research crew time to enabling the rodent investigations.

Companies are in talks with CASIS and Techshot to get time on the densitometer, and the company is happy with its potential role in the future of research on Earth and in space.

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Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the February, 2018 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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