Professors Unite to Battle Osteoporosis in Astronauts

By Dom Fonce

Alicia Prieto-Langarica, assistant professor of mathematics and statistics at Youngstown State University, is collaborating with Marnie Saunders, a biomedical engineering professor at the University of Akron, to study bone micro-fractures and regeneration, and its effects on astronauts.

The research examines the constant regeneration that takes place in bones.

“With each step we humans take, we’re causing very small micro-fractures in our bones. We have one type of bone cells that eat up the debris left by the cracks and another that lays more bone down to fill them back up,” Prieto-Langarica said.

The goal of the research is to see what makes the cells lie and remove bone and how they communicate.

Prieto-Langarica said that astronauts, who have walked in zero gravity, come back to earth very susceptible to osteoporosis at a young age. This is due to there being no gravity in space and no stress on the bones.

“Our main goal is to figure out the smaller workings of bone cells, called osteoclasts, in microgravity, which is spaceflight, to help understand how to counter the effects of osteoporosis,” Saunders said.

Prieto-Langarica said she never considered what was occurring in bones. Similarly, Saunders had never considered what math could add to her research. After meeting at a conference, the two began working together and have continued to do so for about three years.

Saunders is running physical tests on the stimulation of bone cells. Prieto Langarica is building mathematical models on the computer that conduct the same test, in hopes to save physical resources.

“We can run a million tests on this mathematical model, and it helps us find the best areas to run our physical research,” Prieto-Langarica said. “The two methods work together for us to have the best possible research.”

Prieto-Langarica credits Gabrielle Van Scoy, an undergraduate in the math department, for creating the program that runs her models.

“The program was created using MATLAB, which is a sort of programming language that is really good with matrices and plotting things,” Van Scoy said.

The program only models bone formations, but Van Scoy is hoping to model bone metabolism as well.

“The program runs 26 steps, which represent the 26 days that the bone cell research is being done in the lab at the University of Akron,” Van Scoy said.

She said the program has yielded positive results in its early stages and is consistently similar to the 26-day physical experiments being done in Akron.

“Another neat thing about the program is that we can see what the sheet of bone looks like because the 3D matrix essentially stacks each day, and image, on top of the previous,” Van Scoy said.

Van Scoy credits Prieto-Langarica with pushing her to major in applied mathematics instead of electrical engineering.

“If it weren’t for Dr. Prieto, I would not love math nearly as much as I do now, and I most definitely wouldn’t be a math major,” Van Scoy said. “I am so grateful for her encouragement and her belief in me. She has definitely changed my life.”

Prieto-Langarica, Saunders, Van Scoy and Flora Opoku Asantewaa, a graduate student handling the statistics involved in the research, will soon be publishing a small portion of their research in a journal.