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updated 9/21/2010 1:17:57 AM ET 2010-09-21T05:17:57

The International Space Station is about to take one giant leap for biological science in orbit.

Three new biomedical experiments funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health will take advantage of the space station's unique orbital facilities and weightless environment, NASA officials said. The experiments will use the station as a lab to study how bones and the immune system weaken in space.

The NIH grants set aside about $1.3 million for the experiments as part of the agency's Biomedical Research on the International Space Station (BioMed-ISS) program. [ Graphic: Inside and Out: The International Space Station ]

The program falls in line with the space station's designation as a U.S. National Laboratory for scientists from academia, the private sector and various government agencies. But it includes an important first, officials said.

"This is the first research sponsored by a government agency that's a non-traditional partner of NASA," said Marybeth Edeen, manager of the space station's National Laboratory Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "We expect things to keep building from here."

The $100 billion space station has been under construction since 1998 and is nearly complete. Some 15 countries and space agencies from the United States, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan are building the outpost.

National laboratory in space

In 2005, Congress designated the U.S. portion of the space station as a national laboratory, freeing it for use by other federal agencies and researchers from universities and the private sector. The move could open up many new lines of research to scientists in these spheres.

"Cells behave differently in microgravity," Edeen told SPACE.com. "You can see things in microgravity that you cannot see on the ground."

In the past five years, a few experiments not run by NASA have taken advantage of such perks. In 2008, for example, researchers from a Texas company began an experiment on the ISS. Their project aimed to develop a vaccine against salmonella by taking advantage of the effects of null gravity on bacterial virulence.

Other companies, such as the California-based NanoRacks LLC, are developing equipment aboard the ISS to make it easier for scientists to do experiments there.

But the NIH grants represent a big step toward opening up the space station to research sponsored by other federal agencies. The new experiments will be paid for and directed by NIH, with NASA helping out with logistics.

"It's NIH's technical review, their decision on the science," Edeen said. "We work with them to make sure what they want to do is feasible."

Bone loss and immune systems

NIH officials plan to make two more rounds of grant awards through the BioMed-ISS program, NIH officials said. NASA has similar research agreements with the Departments of Defense, Agriculture and Energy, as well as the National Science Foundation.

But first, the health agency is looking forward to the new space station experiments. Here's a look at the three projects funded by the new grants:

Bone-loss: This study, led by researcher Paola Divieti of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, will take a close look at how spaceflight affects osteocytes, a common type of bone cell, which are thought to have gravity-sensing abilities. Studying them in a weightless environment may help target new therapies for osteoporosis and related bone diseases.

Immune-system: This experiment is headed by former astronaut Millie Hughes-Fulford of the Northern California Institute for Research and Education. The immune systems of astronauts are suppressed while in space, much like the reduction in the immune response that occurs in the elderly, putting both groups at increased risk of infections. This study aims to apply lessons from past research into immune cells in weightlessness to a new model for the decreased immune response in the elderly.

Toxin-migration: The movement of toxins from intestines to other organs in the body is a major source of illness in the United States, NASA officials said. A major factor in disease stems from the ability of toxins to compromise the natural barrier function of cells in the gastrointestinal tract. Using 3-D cell culture models grown in weightlessness, researcher Declan McCole of the University of California-San Diego plans to generate insights regarding the barrier properties of the intestines and explore how the absence of gravity affects a toxin's ability to diminish this barrier.

The NIH-funded experiments will be conducted in two stages.

The first is a ground-based preparatory phase to allow investigators to meet select milestones and technical requirements. The second, the actual experimental phase, will take place on the space station. This phase will include preparing the experiments for launch, working with astronauts to conduct them in orbit and performing subsequent data analyses on Earth.

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