Rice students win NASA national design award

April 23, 2009

It would be terrible if the first humans to reach Mars stepped onto the surface to discover their legs could no longer hold them. A team of Rice University students is working to make sure that doesn't happen.

Five senior bioengineering students have designed a device to help astronauts keep their skeletons strong and healthy by measuring bone mineral density loss, literally on the fly. Their design of a bone-remodeling monitor for use in microgravity shared the top prize in NASA's third annual Systems Engineering Competition.

Charlie Foucar, Shannon Moore, Evan Williams, Bodin Hon and Leslie Goldberg came up with a noninvasive device that measures the concentration of deoxypyridinoline, a bone marker found in urine.

For nearly a half-century of spaceflight, astronauts have been found to lose bone mass at a rate of up to 2 percent per month while in space. That's not a big deal on an orbital jaunt of a week or two, but residents of the international space station stay aloft for up to six months and don't have the tools on board to get a real-time measurement of what turns out to be a hazard of living in microgravity. Travelers to Mars face a six-month trip as well, and that's just one-way. Long before that can happen, NASA expects to send explorers for more extended periods to an eventual moon base in one-sixth of Earth's gravity.

When it comes to strong bones, humans are built to use them or lose them.

As it happened, Hon worked as a NASA intern and had direct experience with the design of the toilet on the next class of spacecraft, the Orion, which will eventually take astronauts back to the moon and possibly beyond. "So I know a bit about urine collection," he said.

"We looked at all of the NASA documentation about health risks for things we could reasonably address from a bioengineering approach," said Moore. "We discovered NASA had no way of determining bone loss in space and thought that would be a good way to apply our experience."

Moore said even though bone-density markers can be found in blood, sweat and saliva, the team decided on urine because of their experience and because it can be collected noninvasively.

The team's working prototype has three stages: a collection unit that ties into the spacecraft's waste-disposal system, an immunoassay process that combines the urine with nanoshells and antibodies, and a photometer that reads the absorbance spectra of the combined solution and feeds a PDA running an analysis program personalized for each astronaut. Resulting data can be downloaded to NASA or analyzed on the spot.

"We think running this test about once a week would be a good start," Moore said. "They could customize treatments against bone loss based on individual responses, so if the ground crew saw that astronaut X was losing a lot of bone and not responding very well to the dietary supplements, they could try more of a physical regimen."

Goldberg said the process holds promise for other purposes. "They could probably apply this technology to other biological processes and be an all-encompassing health monitor," she said.

The team's project adviser was Maria Oden, director of Rice's recently opened Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK) and professor in the practice of engineering. The OEDK, which opened last December in a renovated facility that once was part of campus food services, gives engineering students ample space, the right tools and expertise to complete their required senior design projects. The renovations were made possible through generous donations to Rice's Centennial Campaign by alumnus M. Kenneth Oshman and his wife, Barbara, and National Instruments.

Jerry Hartman, education lead for NASA's explorations systems division, said the Rice team's proposal was "more thorough than some of the studies I've seen in the private sector." He promised to deliver copies of the paper to his engineering and scientific colleagues. "Don't be surprised if you hear from one or more of them," he told the students. "They're genuinely interested in our education program, and it's obviously for selfish reasons."

Though prizes are usually awarded for first, second and third place, NASA judges decided this year there would be two first-place winners based on the strength of the winning entries. The other, from Virginia Tech, designed a small research rocket payload that could be launched to 900 meters and deployed, and would autonomously navigate to a predefined landing coordinate.

Both teams received cash prizes of $3,500 and an invitation to a future space shuttle launch.
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