Muscle loss in elderly people could be prevented or reversed following experiments to be conducted on the International Space Station.
Scientists at Liverpool University say the same processes that cause muscle loss in astronauts contribute to frailty in old age.
They are sending laboratory-grown muscle cells into space, where they expect them to behave like the muscles of an elderly person.
Professor Malcolm Jackson, from the Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease, said: “We want to understand whether muscles in space are unresponsive to exercise in a similar way to how muscles of older people and animals are unresponsive to exercise on earth.
“We can use the information to see if that can be reversed.”
With forecasts that more than six in 10 people in the UK will be over the age of 65 within 15 years, the research has attracted funding from the government’s UK Space Agency.
The experiments are expected to demonstrate that microgravity in space reduces the production of vital proteins which are needed to maintain muscle mass.
The research will be conducted automatically inside sealed containers containing miniature 3D printed scaffolds supporting constructs of human muscle which will be electrically stimulated.
Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said muscle research is important in an ageing society.
“There is a big challenge around keeping people active, and where they can’t remain active how can we retain muscle mass for normal everyday activities in older people,” he said.