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Manufacture Small Molecules

R&D in Orbit

In the November issue we covered the Galactic Grant Competition, which gives life sciences companies based in Massachusetts, USA, the chance to carry out research on board the International Space Station (ISS). But why exactly would they want to? We spoke with Cynthia Bouthot at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to find out.

What do researchers stand to gain?

Life science researchers have the opportunity to conduct novel research throughout the discovery, development, delivery, and diagnostic phases of R&D pipeline. For example, microgravity facilitates an array of alterations in gene expression. Examining the differences compared to that seen on Earth ultimately enables researchers to target the genes responsible for an effect. Additionally, microgravity facilitates better macromolecular crystal growth; larger, higher-quality crystals enable diffraction analysis with greater resolution of structure.

Can it accelerate research programs?

A microgravity environment can provide researchers and pharmaceutical companies an accelerated disease model that could potentially take years – and millions of dollars – off their research. For instance, rodent research provides a fast-paced glimpse into the mechanisms of muscle wasting and bone density loss that could help us further understand and potentially combat diseases like osteoporosis. Humans and rodents both experience heavy muscle and bone density loss as there is no gravity to push and pull against. Given the short lifespan of rodents, in some instances, they can live most of their adult lives on the ISS (three months), allowing researchers to test therapies on the rodents in real-time. Effectively, in the span of weeks, a researcher can learn more about muscle wasting/bone density loss than they could in a couple of years on the ground.

What projects are best suited for a micro-g environment?

The best projects are those that best match both the research priorities of the investigator and the conditions of microgravity. Additionally, the best projects tend to be the simplest. Regardless of scientific discipline, the fewer the variables (from hardware to crew time), the easier they can be manifested for flight to achieve optimal results. CASIS works closely with researchers on designing Earth-based goals for optimal space-based projects. We don’t expect the scientists to become space experts; it’s our job to make the translation.

Could you give us a sense for previous projects?

Over the duration of the ISS, there has been a bevy of life science investigations conducted in space (including the since-retired space shuttle). To date, life science investigations brokered through CASIS have focused on better understanding muscle wasting and bone density loss. Also, researchers have looked at physical variables related to the absence of sedimentation, thermal convection, buoyancy, hydrostatic pressure gradients, altered capillary fluid flow and marangoni forces.

What are the main challenges?

The first big challenge is helping the researcher understand how their research priorities could be enhanced with projects on the ISS – many have not considered the prospect of space-based research. And, of course, we understand that our research laboratory is not the easiest to get to – we have to work hard with all parties to make the process simple and seamless. Astronauts selected by NASA and our international partners are all trained on each experiment that is to be conducted. In some instances, the researchers are able to communicate with the astronauts in real-time to ensure the investigation is completed properly.

What would you say to scientists thinking about applying for the Galactic Grant Competition, or interested in space-based experiments more generally?

Applications from the Galactic Grant Competition (Closing date: April 1, 2015) must have a life sciences focus, and it must be research that has potential benefit to life on Earth. The projects must be from a Massachusetts company in good standing with the Department of Revenue. Other than that, researchers are free to think as broadly as they would like about potential life science investigations. Reach out to CASIS and ask us questions about space flight. We understand that few researchers have had the opportunity to leverage microgravity for their investigations. Subsequently, there are a lot of questions and potential misconceptions about space-based research. CASIS is here to take the complexities out of the equation by working with researchers to help them understand everything from making a submission, to hardware needs they as researchers must be mindful of, to what types of life science investigations are currently possible on the station.

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About the Author
Stephanie Vine

Making great scientific magazines isn’t just about delivering knowledge and high quality content; it’s also about packaging these in the right words to ensure that someone is truly inspired by a topic. My passion is ensuring that our authors’ expertise is presented as a seamless and enjoyable reading experience, whether in print, in digital or on social media. I’ve spent fourteen years writing and editing features for scientific and manufacturing publications, and in making this content engaging and accessible without sacrificing its scientific integrity. There is nothing better than a magazine with great content that feels great to read.

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