Supine science

Research subjects push back the frontiers of space by hitting the sack

Lots of people donate their bodies to science. But most of them wait until after they're dead.

Not Charlie Procter. For five months earlier this year, the 45-year-old petroleum engineer allowed nurses to probe and prick him dozens of times while drilling for blood; underwent several bone-density sonagram tests forcing him to contort his body in uncomfortable positions for up to several hours at a time; and permitted a doctor to take, in his words, "a Black and Decker" to his hip bone while conducting two bone biopsies--all in the name of science.

And that was the easy part.
For three solid months, Procter was, in his words, "incarcerated" in the General Clinical Research Center on the campus of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He was confined to bed for 24 hours a day, where he ate all his meals and did all his business--all while forbidden to raise his upper body above a thirty-degree angle.

For his five-month effort, Procter received $6,500 and the satisfaction of being an active (or, more accurately, an inactive) participant in furthering the frontiers of science.

As preposterous as it may sound, Procter was a human guinea pig--more of a hibernating bear, actually--in a study with direct applications to aiding long-term space travel. When astronauts go into space, especially for extended periods of time, they suffer severe bone loss, which puts them at an increased risk for fractures and kidney stones, according to Dr. Lisa Ruml, an instructor of internal medicine who is assisting in the bed-rest study.

The study's purpose is to test the effectiveness of olpadronate, an osteoporosis medication, in preventing bone loss and kidney stone formation in zero gravity situations. The study, which began last spring and is expected to last several years and include 16 to 20 volunteers, is funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which awarded UT Southwestern a $5 million grant in 1991 to set up the country's only Specialized Center of Research and Training in Physiology.

According to Ruml, the Russian cosmonaut who spent 356 days in space--the longest stint thus far--suffered 50 percent loss of bone in his heels. He also had significant bone loss in his hips and spine, while his skull gained bone. Scientists do not know why this happens--something the UT Southwestern study will also investigate.

NASA has conducted several 17-week bed rest studies on bone loss prevention, but had little luck getting results. Scientists first thought exercise was the key, but that helped preserve muscle, not bone. They also tried calcium supplements and banging the bottom of feet to simulate feet hitting pavement--all to no avail.

Extended bed rest is not a perfect simulation of zero gravity, but it offers a good model, says Ruml. Bedridden patients lose even more bone mass than astronauts.

While NASA has a whole department devoted to recruiting volunteers for other studies, UT Southwestern has to rely on newspaper advertising to find its guinea pigs. The advertisements for bed rest studies have resulted in calls from as far away as New York. But Ruml cautions that part of their job involves carefully excluding people who make a livelihood of being experiment subjects.

It is equally paramount that they find candidates who can stick it out. Lying in bed for 12 consecutive weeks may sound inviting, but it's tougher than it looks. There's the boredom factor, which is not helped by the fact that during half the week subjects are on a restricted metabolic diet.

"The study can be difficult," she concedes. "You get cabin fever. I couldn't do it."

Still, Ruml's only lost one candidate to date, a man who couldn't stick it out past week two.

"That seems to be the threshold week," Ruml says. "That's when they get very irritable. They revert to childhood and ring for the nurses for every little thing."

"Don't bother me unless you're Janet Jackson," reads the sign on the hospital room door.

Inside, Chris Talton lies shirtless in bed, surrounded by the objects and activities that have made his 12-week voluntary stay here more bearable--posters of beautiful female singers--Jackson, Sade, Toni Braxton--his saxophone, tape player and television. He's only got four more days to go.

A 23-year-old security guard, Talton found out about the study from his mother, who is a secretary on this research floor. He had recently quit his security job, because his assignment--apartment complexes in south Oak Cliff--had gotten too dangerous.

He has a beeper so he can call friends after the hospital turns off incoming calls at night. He has had a steady stream of friends visit--some of whom think he's crazy, some of whom have signed up as future candidates. But, all in all, Talton has enjoyed the solitude.

"If you have nothing to do and a lot on your mind, this is perfect for putting your thoughts together," he says. "It's like a long vacation."

During his 12 weeks lying down, Talton says he's figured out what to do with his life. He has enrolled in community college for January, where he plans to study psychology and go into youth counseling. He figures he'll transfer to the University of North Texas and minor in music.

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