A beefy strain of custom-designed mice created at Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor are headed to the International Space Station to help scientists better understand bone and muscle loss, both in space and on Earth.

Mice from The Jackson Laboratory will go the International Space Station to be used in research on muscle-wasting conditions. Photo courtesy of The Jackson Laboratory

The study designed by Jackson researcher Se-Jin Lee will explore the effect of microgravity on astronauts’ bones and muscles during space flight, and how to prevent it. It also may yield clues that can help the elderly, the bedridden and those with muscle-wasting conditions.

Caribou native Jessica Meir, a physiologist who is serving as a flight engineer on the current space station mission, was trained to work directly with the Jackson mice in space, a lab spokeswoman said.

Lee, a 61-year-old scientist born in South Korea, has spent his career studying the molecular and cellular signals that shape tissue development, growth and regeneration. He has run labs at John Hopkins, the University of Connecticut and now Jackson’s Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Connecticut.

This will be the first of Lee’s projects to be done in space, but not the first time that mice from Jackson Laboratory, a 90-year-old nonprofit that sells genetically engineered mice to researchers around the world, have gone to the space station, Jackson Lab spokeswoman Grace Scott said.

The strain of mice used in this study are known as “mighty mice,” which are engineered to lack the gene that Lee identified almost 20 years ago as responsible for development of a muscle growth inhibitor he named myostatin. Without that protein, “mighty mice” grow skeletal muscles twice normal size.

“Our discovery of myostatin has launched a widespread effort in both the academic and pharmaceutical communities to exploit the biological properties for both agricultural and human therapeutic applications,” Lee writes in summing up his research on his curriculum vitae.

“Our discovery suggested blocking myostatin activity in livestock and aquatic species could be an effective strategy for dramatically improving meat/fish yields to help meet the shrinking world food supply,” he said. “Inhibiting myostatin activity may represent a new strategy for increasing muscle growth and regeneration.”

The project’s lead investigator, Dr. Se-Jin Lee of The Jackson Laboratory, and its co-investigator, Dr. Emily Germain-Lee, chief of the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology & Diabetes at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. Their study will explore the effect of microgravity on astronauts’ bones and muscles during space flight.  Photo courtesy The Jackson Laboratory

Lee will be heading to the Kennedy Space Center next month to deliver a batch of 10-week-old mighty mice for  transport in a private cargo spacecraft loaded with scientific equipment and supplies for a Dec. 4 trip to the International Space Station. The mice will be in space for 40 days.

The research will continue after the mice return as Lee’s team studies the impact of space flight on bone and muscle loss. The results will be used to assess Lee’s clinical work on the promise myostatin inhibitors hold for muscle and bone loss prevention and repair, Scott said.

Lee will work with students at two public high schools in Connecticut to analyze the data. He hopes to collaborate with Maine schools in the future.

Jackson Laboratory has a 43-acre campus in Bar Harbor that employs more than 1,500 people. Another 700 people work at Jackson facilities in Ellsworth, Farmington, Connecticut and Sacramento, California. It sells its genetically engineered mice to researchers around the world to fund its own biomedical research.

Founded in 1929, the nonprofit research institution is the world’s leading supplier of lab mice specially bred for scientific experimentation. It has more than 8,300 distinct strains of custom-designed mice available for purchase in its catalog, with hundreds of new varieties being added each year.

 

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