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Life in outer space?

Engineers seek the key to rebuilding the human body

A giant, outer space laboratory serves as a body shop in the most literal sense. Scientists and engineers string together metal, cells and artificial tissue, creating new bones, cartilage and arteries for humans here on earth.

It's a space-age concept, but it's not a fantasy. "This is scientific exploration attempting to take medicine to the next level," said Mauli Agrawal, Ph.D., director of the Center for Clinical Bioengineering at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSC).

NASA recently selected Dr. Agrawal to speak at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' annual meeting. "NASA is trying to expand its scope," Dr. Agrawal said. "We have a space station we can use to study medicine, as well as the planets and the stars."

Dr. Agrawal said scientists still don't know a lot about the effects of microgravity, or a lack of gravity, on the human body. "In tissue engineering, a mechanical stimulus, like gravity, is beneficial for tissue growth. But we understand very little about why it works," Dr. Agrawal said. "What better way to study this than to take away all mechanical forces, like under microgravity, and then import the kind of forces you want? You can do that in outer space."

The symposium convened leading mechanical and bioengineers from NASA, Boeing, the U.S. Air Force and universities from around the globe. "While biomedical engineering doesn't always relate directly to outer space, mechanical engineers are always trying to make spacecraft a lot stronger and lighter," Dr. Agrawal said. "Biomedical engineers are constantly looking for new and better materials with specific properties. Any interface between the two fields could lead to better medical treatments."

Contact: Amanda Gallagher or Aileen Salinas