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Making Antibiotics in Space

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Making Antibiotics in Space

Scientists who studied antibiotic production during the "John Glenn" shuttle mission are looking forward to more low-gravity experiments on the International Space Station.

April 21, 2000 -- Most of us remember the highly publicized "John Glenn mission" of 1998 as just that: John Glenn’s mission. But when the Space Shuttle Discovery lifted off on Oct. 29, 1998, Senator Glenn wasn't the only science experiment on board STS-95.

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.

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Because the payload on STS-95 was almost fully automated, crew members grappled more with computer glitches than with test tubes or pipettes. Sen. Glenn was not directly involved with the antibiotic microgravity experiments.

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.

Left: Pilot studies to investigate microbial antibiotic production in space were carried out by BioServe and Bristol-Myers Squibb on shuttle missions STS-77 in May 1996 and STS-80 in November 1996. This picture shows a test tube full of space grown colonies (right) alongside a matched ground control (left). Production of Monorden in space was increased up to 200% compared to the ground control. The STS-95 flight carried this experiment a step further. On that mission, test tubes were replaced with a Gas Exchange Fermentation Apparatus, which increased antibiotic production even more. [more information from BioServe Space Technologies]

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.

With the antibiotic experiments carried out in space, researchers bring back cultures and analyze cells and compounds to see if and how they have changed. However, Klaus says that the 10-14 day period in which a shuttle is typically in orbit is often not long enough to decipher significant changes or trends. To move beyond this shortcoming, a 2-4 month mission is scheduled for next year that will take advantage of the long duration International Space Station (ISS) facilities.

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


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