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Space Experiments Expand Possibilities for the Future - Results from the Japanese Experiment Module Kibo -

Contributions to the medical problems of an aging society

Q. How are these space medicine experiments going to improve life on Earth?

Space medicine aims to establish technology for the management of astronauts’ health, but we would also like to give these results back to society on the ground.
As I mentioned before, we are learning to prevent the loss of bone mass in astronauts through appropriate nutrient consumption, effective exercise, and the minimum of therapeutic agents. We are also thinking about how to use such an approach in the prevention of osteoporosis on the ground. Currently, there are about 12 million osteoporosis patients in Japan; half of women in their 70s develop it. As a result, every year 150,000 people suffer a fracture of the femoral neck, and all of them need surgery, followed by 3 months of rehabilitation. This places a big burden on patients and their families, and costs our nation 665.7 billion yen a year (US$7.5 billion) in medical expenses and nursing care. In Finland and Canada, as a result of a government campaign for osteoporosis check-ups and treatment, the number of patients with bone fractures is decreasing. In Japan, on the other hand, the number of patients with fractures of the femoral neck is increasing every year. When Niigata University surveyed patients in Sado City who broke their femoral neck, it was found that only 4 percent of them were receiving drug treatment for osteoporosis. We would like to use the preventive countermeasure we’re developing in space medicine to fight osteoporosis on the ground, and to contribute to the campaign to reduce the number of seniors who are bedridden due to bone fractures.
Our approach to space tele-medicine also holds the promise of medical technology in less-populated areas and health monitoring for elderly people living alone. Currently, Japan is an aging society with a low birthrate. In Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward alone, 30 percent of the elderly live alone. These people don’t have relatives near them and they can not go to the doctor by themselves when they are sick, so they are more likely to wait until they are seriously ill and call an ambulance. If we can improve tele-medicine technology to the point that we can monitor our own health at home and consult with doctors through TV phones or e-mail, we may be able to prevent some strokes and heart attacks. Not only would we increase our nation’s healthy life expectancy, but we would also reduce our medical expenses.

Q. What other space biomedical experiments are scheduled in the future?

Astronaut Satoshi Furukawa in his space suit during underwater training (Courtesy: NASA/JAXA)
Astronaut Satoshi Furukawa in his space suit during underwater training (Courtesy: NASA/JAXA)

In manned missions to the Moon and Mars, where astronauts cannot quickly return to Earth even if they become seriously ill, it is important to monitor their health and facilitate self-care. During the flight of astronaut Satoshi Furukawa, scheduled for 2011, we are planning to test more types of self-reliant medical technology. Currently, downlinked electrocardiograph data is analyzed by a doctor on the ground, but Astronaut Furukawa is a doctor himself, so we are planning to let him monitor his own circadian rhythm in orbit and find out if we can use this technology to help manage the health of astronauts by himself.
In addition, we are going to record video related to space medicine in orbit, and produce an educational film. We hope to use this film in schools to show children the importance of science and technology, while also teaching them about the workings of the human body and about manned space flight technology.

Setting our sights on manned exploration of the Moon and Mars

Q. Where are you interested in focusing your research?

Dr. Hiroshi Ohshima at Astronaut Koichi Waikato’s post-flight rehabilitation (Courtesy: JAXA)
Dr. Hiroshi Ohshima at Astronaut Koichi Waikato’s post-flight rehabilitation (Courtesy: JAXA)

Before I got involved in JAXA's space medicine research, I was a lecturer in orthopedics at a national university. Then, I'm interested in research on bones and muscles. When astronauts stay in space for long periods, they lose both bone and muscle masses. In preparation for their flights, astronauts build up the physical strength required for their missions by exercising 2 hours every day. Even during their flights, they exercise for 2 hours a day to maintain their physical strength. And after they return to Earth, they undergo 45 days of rehabilitation to recover their strength. In the past, We’ve developed an exercise program for Japanese astronauts and attended post-flight rehabilitation sessions while communicating with NASA’s rehabilitation personnel. I’d like to promote further research on more effective exercise programs that can be completed in shorter periods.
I’d also like to take part in developing new exercise machines. The ones used on the ISS were developed in the United States and Russia. Once the new Japanese transportation system, the H-II Transfer Vehicle, is in use, if we could build small, multifunction exercise machines using Japan’s unique technology, there may be a chance to launch and test them by ourselves.
Things related to the daily necessities-food, clothing, and everyday goods-are also important on long-duration expeditions. JAXA has worked with Japanese scientists and companies to develop space suits with deodorant and antibacterial functions, and about 30 types of Japanese space food. These items have a very good reputation not just with Japanese astronauts, but among astronauts from other countries as well. In the future, we expect to develop more functional space food, which will help maintain healthy bones and muscles, and to equip the ISS with living supplies created with advanced Japanese technology.

Q. What is the goal for space biomedical experiments in the future?

Logo of JAXA’s Space Biomedical Research Office
Logo of JAXA’s Space Biomedical Research Office

The Japanese Experiment Module, Kibo, is complete and fully functional. Long-duration expeditions by Japanese astronauts, and Japan's own utilization of the space environment, have begun. The operational period of the ISS is currently under discussion, but it's clear it can only be used for several years. We would like to make the most of this opportunity to work in the space environment, to make strides in space medicine research through cooperation with top scientists in Japan. We would also like to transfer the health management technology developed for astronauts to everyday use for people on Earth, as well as making use of this research in youth education.
Whether we are going to start developing Japan’s own manned space vehicle is up to our government to decide. Various discussions have taken place and will continue. For now, we would like to focus on developing the knowledge and technology needed for manned spaceships and manned lunar exploration, so that we will be well prepared when these dreams become a reality in the future. Last year, in cooperation with university scientists, we started studies on moonwalks and preventing falls, as well as research on lunar dust management. Our ambition is represented in the logo of JAXA’s Space Biomedical Research Office: the tip of an arrow ready to shoot straight toward the space frontier. We hope to make the ISS our research platform for future human travel to the Moon and Mars.

Related Link:  Area Passive Dosimeter for Lifescience Experiments in Space (Area PADLES)
 High Definition Television transmitting system (HDTV)
 Bisphosphonates as a Countermeasure to Space Flight Induced Bone Loss
Hiroshi Ohshima

Research area leader/Senior Scientist and Manager of the Space Biomedical Research Office, Human space technology and astronauts department, Human Space Systems and Utilization Mission Directorate, JAXA
Dr. Ohshima has participated in space medicine research involving the ISS and the Japanese Experiment Module, Kibo. During the long-duration expeditions of Astronaut Koichi Wakata and Astronaut Soichi Noguchi, Dr. Ohshima was in charge of exercise programs before, during, and after the flights. He took part in research on the prevention of loss of bone mass and in space tele-medicine using a small-size electrocardiograph.

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