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Over-the-counter osteoporosis drug appears to keep astronauts from losing bone density on long space flights

Big news: New research on ISS now shows that the standard over-the-counter osteoporosis drugs used by millions on Earth appears to keep astronauts from losing bone density during long space flights.

Beginning in 2009, the group administered the drug to five long-stay astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), including Koichi Wakata, 48, and Soichi Noguchi, 46. The five took the drug — an over-the-counter bisphosphonate used to treat osteoporosis — once a week starting three weeks before they lifted off until they returned to Earth. The researchers then monitored the astronauts’ bone mass over time and compared the results to those for 14 astronauts that had never taken the drug.

The results showed that the 14 who had never taken the drug had average bone density loss of 7 percent in the femur, and 5 percent in the hip bone. The five astronauts on bisphosphonate, however, only had average bone density loss in the femur of 1 percent, and even a 3 percent increase in the hip bone. Calcium levels in their urine, which rise the more bone mass is lost, were also very low.

If these results hold up, they might very well solve one of the biggest challenges faced by any interplanetary traveler. Up until now, bone loss during long weightless missions never seemed to average less than 0.5 percent per month. After spending three years going to and from Mars, an astronaut could thus lose about almost 20 percent of their bone mass in their weight-bearing bones, and would probably be unable to return to Earth.

Thus, a mission to Mars seemed impossible, unless we could build a ship with some form of artificial gravity, an engineering challenge we don’t yet have the capability to achieve.

If these already tested drugs can eliminate this problem, then the solar system is finally open to us all. All that has to happen now is to do some one to two year manned missions on ISS to test the drugs effectiveness for these long periods of weightlessness.