Did you know bones weaken in space? Experiencing microgravity, or weightlessness, can be thrilling for astronauts. “But,” says biomedical engineering major, Jacqueline Maynard ‘17, “a side effect is the loss of as much as 40 percent of their bone mass in a single expedition, making fractures and long term complications like osteoporosis very likely.”
To counteract this and potentially help the general population that has degenerative bone conditions, Jacqueline and other students in the College of Engineering, Technology, and Architecture (CETA) are conducting experiments in the University’s new Tissue Engineering Lab. The project is funded by the NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium, a federally supported grant, internship, and scholarship program for students pursuing careers in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (STEM).
Our students are testing whether the mechanical vibrations of sound can alter the stem cells of mice grown in an artificial environment. Prior research has shown that when mechanical vibrations are applied to the cells at the right frequency, they may increase or maintain bone mass, possibly because sound waves stimulate muscles, much like exercise does. “We believe acoustic waves could be a therapeutic approach we can potentially use to stimulate bone formation and improve bone health,” says Andrea Kwaczala, assistant professor of civil, environmental, and biomedical engineering.
The research also involves two acoustic engineering students, Anna Elefante ’17 and Lucas Shearer, ’17. With their advisor, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Eoin King, Anna and Lucas designed and built a desktop acoustic chamber with a cell culture plate holder to house the cells. “This system allows us to apply sound or ‘white noise’ waves at varying frequencies to stimulate cell growth,” says Anna.
Fellow student researchers Ahmad Arabiyat ’17 and Jason Reynolds, ’17, biomedical engineering majors with pre-med concentrations, are optimistic about the project’s future.
“It’s too early to predict the final outcome,” says Ahmad. “But the vibrations have caused the number of cells to increase, which is very exciting and motivating.”
Jason says the next logical step would be for the acoustics team to develop a portable acoustic chamber.
“This chamber would collect real-time data on environmental conditions like pH and temperature,” he explains. “Since it’s portable, it can potentially travel through space.”