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Buckeye engineers work to improve astronauts’ life

A team of six Buckeye engineers were one of only eight teams invited to compete in the HP and Intel Design Challenge: Life in Space with a product that could help scientists better understand how extended space travel affects astronauts’ muscles. Their mission? Helping shape the future of space innovation.

Group image of Buckeye engineering students, including MAE students Matt Arnott, Vinny Funari and Brandon Lundeen, who were invited to compete in the HP and Intel Design Challenge.Engineering students (left to right) Fiona Muyo, Andrew Wolfe, Vinny Funari, Brandon Lundeen, Matt Arnott and Kelly DeRees competed in the HP and Intel Design Challenge to help improve astronauts' quality of life in space.Mechanical and aerospace engineering students Matt Arnott, Vinny Funari and Brandon Lundeen, pictured third, fourth and fifth from left, along with Kelly DeRees (materials science and engineering), Fiona Muyo (chemical engineering) and Andrew Wolfe (computer science and engineering) competed against teams from seven other schools across the United States. The Buckeyes are advised by Ali Jhemi, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Once launched, UMAS or Understanding Muscle Atrophy in Space, uses a camera and onboard computer system to monitor tissue-engineered skeletal muscle in microgravity.

It’s well-documented that extended spaceflight causes significant skeletal muscle atrophy in astronauts. Previous experiments have shown that 30 to 40 percent of actin and myosin cells are lost during space travel, causing muscle loss that affects astronauts’ quality of life before and after their missions, said Josh Ong, a fourth-year pharmaceutical sciences major.

By providing answers to problems caused by space travel, UMAS could help astronauts long after they return to earth.

“It can go up on spaceflight missions and then you can see what the astronaut experienced on the genomic level of the muscle cells,” said Arnott.

The product injects the muscle tissues with RNAlater, an RNA inhibitor that freezes the gene expression while in microgravity. Once the product returns to earth, further studies can be done to understand the cause of muscular atrophy in space. According to Arnott, the product can be used for experiments as long as needed if the proper conditions are met.

The UMAS idea is an outgrowth of the Undergraduate Student Instrumentation Project (USIP), a NASA-funded project at Ohio State. Two student teams—a biology and an engineering team—are working to create a way to research how skeletal muscle atrophies in microgravity.

“Fortunately the project we were working on closely enough fits what they are asking for in the HP competition,” said Arnott, who heads the engineering team. “We are kind of tailoring our design from an individual experiment to a manufactured product that can improve astronaut life.”

Modifications to the design include scaling it down from 24 muscle tissue cultures in the original experiment to six in the product design, allowing it to be smaller, easier to use and able to run on less power.

The USIP experiment would not be possible without the biology and engineering teams working together.

The engineering team brings skills such as computer design, 3-D modeling and ideas of how to deal with gravity. Engineering skeletal muscle tissue, a relatively new technology, is all up to the biology team.

“Our biology team can’t run this experiment without the product,” said Ong, head of the biology team. “This is a new and original experiment, no other experiment has injected liquid in space. This is something totally new that they are building.”

On the other hand, the engineers would not be working on the project without the idea proposed to them by the biology team.

“As broad as our engineering team is, none of us would be involved in this type of experiment without having the biology team say, ‘this is something that hasn’t been done, but is super important to figure out,’” said Arnott. “If we get substantial enough information, not necessarily from this one experiment, but from more investigation, it could potentially increase the length of time humans can spend in space or increase the distance humans can travel in space.”

Discovering a cause for muscle atrophy in gene expression could lead to a major breakthrough for all types of medicine.

“Muscular dystrophy is a big problem around the world and if we could discover what is going on in space, it could provide answers on a much larger scale,” said Ong. “Ideally, if we could find genetic patterns, that could really give us clues on how to develop certain drugs and therapies to combat muscular dystrophy.”

While the Buckeyes didn’t win the HP and Intel Design Challenge, USIP is well on its way to becoming a reality, with a launch scheduled for August. The experiment will be launched on a Blue Origin rocket from a Texas launch site, remain in space for four minutes and return to earth for the muscle cells to be studied. 

by Emily Lehmkuhl, College of Engineering student communications assistant