Making Antibiotics in Space
The shuttle was also equipped to study antibiotic production and protein crystal growth in an orbiting laboratory. The real-world implications of these studies could revolutionize the pharmaceutical industry.
Microgravity – the condition of near weightlessness that occurs in space – allows researchers to isolate and then examine how gravity affects a wide range of biological and physical processes. NASA microgravity research includes flames in space, materials science, biology, and much more. A growing fraction of this low-gravity experimentation is commercially driven. Researchers think that advances in microgravity science will trigger down-to-earth improvements in everything from internal combustion engines to medicines.
One of the many medical experiments performed on STS-95 was designed to study the growth rates and antibiotic production of bacteria in low gravity. With the global annual market for antibiotics valued at more than $US10 billion, scientists hope to identify and replicate the conditions observed in space that apparently enhance the production efficiency of antibiotic compounds. Pilot studies by BioServe Space Technologies and Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceutical Research Institute in the ‘90s indicated that microbial antibiotic production was increased by up to 200 percent in space-grown cultures. The production of actinomycin D on STS-95 was 75 percent higher in space. The benefits of such findings could have widespread application in improving production facilities on Earth.
The STS-95 flight provided an important test of some critical new BioServe hardware -- the Gas Exchange Fermentation Apparatus, says Dr. David Klaus, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering sciences at the University of Colorado. Replacing test tubes with this device increased antibiotic production substantially. Testing the device in space was just one step in a multipart process that may improve pharmaceutical production on Earth. The immediate goal of the project is to understand what caused the increased efficiency of production observed in space, and ultimately to simulate these responses in ground facilities.
Klaus is the Associate Director of Research for BioServe Space Technologies, a NASA Commercial Space Center (CSC). CSCs are consortia of government, academia and industry formed to help the commercial sector realize the potential of the space marketplace. NASA funds the development of the hardware and provides access to space; industry funds and drives the research; and academic institutions serve as the focal point between the two. In this case a partnership between University of Colorado and Kansas State researchers merges two disciplines – aerospace engineering and biological sciences, respectively. The alliance is part of an effort to foster commercial applications stemming from NASA-industry relationships.
Protein crystal growth was another item on the research agenda during STS-95, said Klaus. It is easier to grow larger, more perfect protein crystals in space; whereas on Earth certain gravity-induced phenomena like sedimentation and buoyancy interfere with growth. The knowledge gained about the structure of proteins can be used to design pharmaceuticals with modified functions to help better fight disease.
Klaus highlights the difference between what he and his colleagues are doing and what NASA calls “dual-use” technologies. The latter are usually devices originally designed for use in space and then subsequently used on Earth for related applications. BioServe's research utilizes the weightless environment for experiments that have to be conducted in space to be applied on Earth.
Above: This computer rendering of the completed International Space Station shows the U.S. Lab Module where many low-gravity experiments will be performed.
Extended exposure to microgravity on the Space Station will help BioServe and Bristol-Myers Squibb researchers monitor the antibiotics for long-term adaptations and determine if they are beneficial. Klaus says the experiments will involve "multiple sets of inoculation" – growing and re-growing many generations in microgravity and taking samples along the way to analyze production rates and changes at various stages. April of 2001 is the estimated launch date.Web Links
Microgravity Research Program Office - from the NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center, has a wealth of information and background on various microgravity projects.
BioServe Space Technologies - A NASA Commercial Space Center
Space Station Research Plan - is available as an Acrobat PDF at NASA Headquarters.
International Space Station - home page
STS-95 - mission home page from the NASA/Johnson Space Center
Microgravity Takes a Quantum Leap - Space Station research may shape society in 21st Century
|For lesson plans and educational activities related to breaking science news, please visit Thursday's Classroom||Author: Annie Strickler (University of Florida)
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