Maybe it’s was seeing the Perseid meteor show this summer or the new space dramas on my streaming watchlist. Maybe it was recently hearing that microbiologists found bacteria had lived 3 years outside the Internationals Space Station. Or maybe it’s just the desire to think about something – anything – that is far far away. Whatever the cause, space has been on my mind.
Typically, when I think about “space science” my mind jumps to theoretical physics (black holes, dark matter, cosmic origins, etc.) or aerospace engineering (aka rocket science). However, scientists from a wide range of fields are involved. Chemists, geologists, meteorologists, doctors, ecologists, psychologists, computer scientists, and biologists fill the ranks of NASA and similar space research groups.
Together these interdisciplinary astro-scientists are helping us discover and understand distant stars and galaxies, our planetary neighbors, and our own planet from a new perspective. They’re also a key part of the continuing efforts to safely get astronauts further into deep space. Finally, scientists from all these fields have found that the unique testing conditions of space have helped them make discoveries that they never would have had their research been confined to the earth’s surface.
NASA Space Biology Program is expansive and its website is a great place to begin to explore the intersection of space and biology. A quick search of research aboard the International Space Station lists around 600 experiments under the category of biology and biotechnology! Here I’m limiting myself to three out-of-this-world medical research projects that are helping both astronauts and the rest of us here below.
Pick Your Own Aspirin
While money still does not grow on trees there’s a chance that your next prescription might thanks to current space research. Since ancient times plants have been harvested for their medically useful compounds. Now scientists are applying new technologies like CRISPR to see if they can use a single easy to grow crop to produce a whole range of medicines on demand.
The impetus behind this is a “space” issue. On a long mission to Mars or beyond astronauts won’t have room to stock up with every possible medicine (and every possible dose duration). But by transforming plants into mini medicine factories astronauts could produce their own medicine when and for however long they needed. Each medicine would only take a few bytes of computer storage – just enough storage room for the sequence of nucleotide bases needed to create each medically useful protein.
Space driven breakthroughs in the emerging field of biopharming will also help us back on earth – even when we do have the opinions of driving to the nearest pharmacy or getting medicines delivered. Because most plant cells already have the biochemical tools needed to fold proteins and carry out most posttranslational modifications, this method can often produce complex proteins at a lower cost than chemically manufacturing them. Growing these proteins in plant cells may also be safer than growing them in bacteria or mammalian cells because plants rarely contain the same retroviruses and other infectious agents that cause diseases in humans.
Measuring Bones in Micro-gravity
A major challenge facing astronauts is that living in a microgravity environment changes the body and, in particular, slows down bone cell growth. Consequently, while in space, their body reabsorbs old bone material faster than it makes new bone. This results in a net loss of bone mass or osteopenia. To counteract this, astronauts use specialized equipment that allows them to do weight-bearing exercises every day. They also take vitamin d, calcium, and sometimes additional supplements like bisphosphonate and teriparatide. However, most astronauts still lose between 1 and 2% of their bone mass every month that they’re on a space mission.
Consequently, NASA and other space travel groups are researching new ways to aggressively treat osteopenia and osteoporosis. One promising avenue – teaming up with private drug companies to test the effectiveness of newly developed osteoporosis drugs.
Traditionally, quantifying the effectiveness of osteoporosis drugs has been difficult. Such tests involve comparing the bone mass changes between a treatment group that receives the medicine and a control group that does not. However, activity levels also affect bone mass and can vary significantly within both groups. This makes it very hard to interpret the data and determine whether taking the drug had any positive effects.
However, in a microgravity environment differences in daily movement do not affect bone mass. This is a huge advantage – one big enough to encourage people to swallow the hefty price of carrying out tests aboard a rocket ship. Several osteoporosis drugs have now been tested in space. What to find out more? Read this article about how a now popular and mass-marketed drug was first tested aboard the space station in 2016 or this article about a potential new drug that not only slows bone growth but also speeds bone creation.
Other drug companies are also teaming up with international space programs to study promising compounds in outer space. Similar to osteoporosis drug test such space studies cost much more than typical lab research but have priceless and unrepeatable insights.
In drug discovery, a key strategy is to know your enemy. In many cases, this means being able to identify and describe over or under active proteins whose distorted activity levels are the root cause of diseases like many cancers and immunodeficiency disorders. However, observing the structures of these proteins is not always easy due to their small size and their tight and sometimes irregular foldings.
However, in space gravity and other convective forces are minimal. This allows even complex, three-dimensional proteins to form large and close to perfect crystals. Science can then use technologies like X-ray crystallography to determine how these crystallized proteins are organized. The resulting structural information then serves as a priceless road map to designing new drugs that can either imitate or counteract the protein.
In addition, scientists are also studying the process of space crystallization itself – and even the possibility of space production – to create high potency drug solutions. To find more about this check out this NASA blog post.
Did you know that Edvotek products have been part of the research aboard the International Space Station? Read this post for our blog to find out more.