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OHSU cartilage research takes flight in one of the last shuttle missions

Scientists will analyze cartilage loss in mice exposed to a zero gravity environment as part of research that has implications for longer space missions and future cartilage research on earth
Scientists will analyze cartilage loss in mice exposed to a zero gravity environment as part of research that has implications for longer space missions and future cartilage research on earth

Oregon Health & Science University cartilage research is part of the space shuttle Discovery mission scheduled for launch in early April. It is one of the shuttle program’s final flights.

Discovery will carry 16 mice enrolled in the Mouse Immunology Mission. OHSU and nine other institutions were chosen to conduct research with the mice in addition to the immunology work coordinated by researchers in California. For OHSU scientists, it’s a great opportunity to learn more about the tissue that keeps our knees, hips and shoulders moving smoothly and painlessly.

“When people go into space, their bones and their muscles lose mass quite rapidly – although this tissue loss is reversed after they return to earth,” said Jamie Fitzgerald, Ph.D, assistant professor in the Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation in the OHSU School of Medicine. “There also is evidence from ground-based experiments that if you take the weight off the knee joint for a period of time, the cartilage will start to break down.”

That sort of cartilage breakdown has implications for longer space missions. “If you send people to Mars, you don’t want them to experience cartilage erosion and potentially pain as a result of spending a lot of time in a gravity-free environment,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald and Cathleen Moscibrocki, research associate in the Fitzgerald Lab, will travel to Florida in mid-April to meet the returning shuttle. They will compare the condition of the cartilage in the knees and elbows of the mice that flew on Discovery with the joints of mice that remained on earth. They expect to have results by December.

The information gleaned from the space mission should inform some of OHSU’s other cartilage research, including looking for ways to prompt the body to heal cartilage. Two years ago, Fitzgerald, Moscibrocki and Andrea Herzka, M.D., assistant professor of orthopaedics in the OHSU School of Medicine, announced the discovery of a strain of mice that have the innate ability to repair their own knee cartilage.

“Knee pain is one of the most common musculoskeletal complaints that bring people to their doctor,” Fitzgerald said. Cartilage is a key culprit. “Human cartilage injuries heal poorly and can lead to cartilage degeneration and osteoarthritis. This is an enormous clinical problem. It is estimated that one quarter of the adult population will have some kind of arthritis by 2020.”

For more information about OHSU’s orthopedics and rehabilitation program go to

For more information about Discovery’s mission, multimedia links, interactive graphics and the like, go to The mouse mission is identified as STS-131.

About OHSU     
Oregon Health & Science University is the state’s only health and research university, and Oregon’s only academic health center. OHSU is Portland's largest employer and the fourth largest in Oregon (excluding government). OHSU's size contributes to its ability to provide many services and community support activities not found anywhere else in the state. It serves patients from every corner of the state, and is a conduit for learning for more than 3,400 students and trainees. OHSU is the source of more than 200 community outreach programs that bring health and education services to every county in the state.
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