The question began to be posed more than two years ago: can
biotech companies make money in space?
For those not in the know, this is usually followed by “Why
would they even want to try?” Those who are already conducting bioresearch in
orbit are quick with an answer: because space is great for growing stuff,
especially small stuff.
We can, in part, credit findings from a bacteria-growing
experiment on a shuttle mission in 2007. Arizona State Univ. researchers found
conclusively that critical genes related to growth and stress in bacteria
themselves in a different way in space, and that the virulence of the
bacteria was higher than its Earth-bound brethren.
Why the potency? Without the weight of gravity causing
stress and forcing a greater expenditure of energy—paired with a greater
available growing area owing to not be pressed against the
earth—micro-organisms can develop more quickly, saving valuable time.
This phenomenon helps production of medically valuable
proteins like immuno-reactive molecules, hormones, enzymes, and vaccines.
Vaccine research benefits from greater virulence. In fact, the low-gravity
environment is thought by some scientists to simulate the environment of the
human gut as a bacteria passes through.
The growth factor experienced by bactera also extends to
crystals. Important to x-ray analysis, crystals structures form much more
predictably in space. This includes protein crystals growth, which is why x-ray
crystallography has been an important of bioresearch in space for many years.
A team of researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will send an army of microorganisms into space this week, to investigate new ways of preventing the formation and spread of biofilms, or clusters of bacteria, that could pose a threat to the health of astronauts. The Micro-2 experiment is scheduled to launch into orbit on May 14 aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis. Shown are professor and project leader Cynthia Collins (left) with graduate student Jasmine Shong making preparations for the launch of Micro-2. Credit: Rensselaer/Collins
For the decade or more, these two areas of research have
been named some of the most promising commercialization areas for biotechnology
in space. But so far this research has been mostly the purview of universities
and government-funded R&D. The American
Society of Gravitational and Space Biology has been promoting this type of
research since 1984, and in recent years the National Institutes of Health and
NASA have been cooperating more closely on research into bone and muscle
degradation in space. The Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering at
the Univ. of Alabama
is well-known for its x-ray crystallography research in space. New Century
Pharmaceuticals, a Huntsville, Ala.-based
company, was spun-out of related R&D at NASA in the 1990s.
But in private industry, only Astrogenetix, an Austin, Texas-based
company founded by Tom Pickens III, has committed to a lengthy series of product-development
experiments aboard the space shuttle. This includes a launch aboard the
Space Shuttle Atlantis this Friday. Previous flights have tested salmonella and
MRSA with the goal of building therapeutic agents, and the company has a
pipeline plan that includes two different types of pneumonia.
But Astrogenetix may be alone for a while. Shuttle missions,
which are expensive, short-lived, and have a risky reputation, will cease after
just three more flights. Obtaining data that anchors a viable therapy or
technology is not going to happen in just one mission, and perhaps not even in
three. And biotechnology requires plenty of instrumentation and equipment. Suppliers
of equipment like assays, dosimeters, and thermal devices don’t
often design for space.
Also in Atlantis’ cargo hold on Friday will be a small army
of microorganisms from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. During the week-long
flight, these cultures will be monitored remotely. Scientists will peer at
these diminutive colonies, trying to understand how weightlessness affects the
activity of bacteria in biofilms, complex 3-D microbial communities that may or
may not change how they do business in a space environment. Biofilms on earth
might be harmless, but in space they could be deadly; astronauts have shown a
vulnerability to infection in space, and biofilms are resistant to antibiotics
here on Earth. In space, bacteria could be a menace.
That’s good for the future of spaceflight, but there’s a
practical side to this research, too. Bioengineers have crafted antimicrobial
surfaces that may or may not help stall the actions of biofilms. Testing in
space, they hope, will provide some development guidance. This, in turn, could
attract some private capital investment, especially given that RPI, and NASA,
have done the heavy lifting.