"Rodent Research-3", a study sponsored by US-based pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Company and the Centre for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), focuses on assessing the ability of a novel compound to prevent skeletal muscle wasting and weakness in mice exposed to long-duration spaceflight.
The investigation was launched aboard the eighth SpaceX resupply mission to the space station this month.
The astronauts on the space station follow rigorous exercise programmes that apply forces to their musculoskeletal systems and help them stay strong throughout their missions.
Mice exposed to spaceflight have proved to be valuable research models to understand, target and treat causes of human muscle atrophy.
"This includes modelling serious diseases that involve muscle wasting such as muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, cancer cachexia and even ageing-related musculoskeletal frailty," said Rosamund Smith, research fellow at Eli Lilly and Company.
The ability to expose all muscles of an organism to conditions that induce muscle atrophy is not easily achieved on Earth.
"Lilly is excited to have the opportunity to conduct this investigation in space," Smith added in a NASA statement.
Loss of muscle function, rather than just a decrease in muscle size, is the critical aspect that leads to problems with physical performance in patients suffering from muscle-wasting conditions.
"The 'Rodent Research-3' study is unique not only in the experimental compound that will be tested but also because, for the first time, muscle function of the mice will be assessed during spaceflight," noted Janet Beegle, Rodent Research-3 project manager at NASA.
Although the primary research focus of "Rodent Research-3" is skeletal muscle, the investigators are studying other organ systems such as bone, both at the tissue and molecular levels.
The goal is to characterise tissue responses to spaceflight and observe how these changes vary with the length of time spent in microgravity.
"The findings will advance our understanding of the risks that long-term space exploration poses to astronauts, and can be applied towards the development of countermeasures to protect astronaut health," the researchers pointed out.
Results will be applied to ongoing discovery efforts at Eli Lilly and Company, seeking treatments for serious muscle-wasting diseases and conditions that may potentially help patients afflicted with degenerative diseases to stay strong. (IANS)