Introduction to Microgravity
Tutorial on Microgravity Research

Tutorial on Microgravity Research

page 6: Specific Areas of Microgravity Research

Protein Crystal Growth

In a microgravity environment protein crystals can be grown larger and with a purity that is impossible to obtain on Earth. By analyzing the space-grown crystals it is possible to determine the structure and function of the thousands of proteins used in the human body and in valuable plants and animals. The determination of protein structure represents a huge opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to develop new drugs to fight diseases. In the US alone, biotechnology product sales exceed $15.6 billion annually . Pharmaceutical companies such as BioCryst Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb, DuPont Merck among others partner with NASA and NASA-funded researchers to produce high-quality protein crystals for new drug development.

The following lists selected applications resulting from protein crystal grown in microgravity:

Crystals of HIV protease inhibitor grown in microgravity are significantly larger and of higher quality than any specimens grown on Earth. This will help in defining the structure of the protein crucial in fighting the AIDS virus.

Structure of the recombinant antibody that fights respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the most serious infectious disease that affects infants in the United States, was determined from the study of crystals grown in microgravity. More than 4 million cases of RSV are reported annually, with more than 4,000 infants dying from it. The active region of the antibody has been defined, which will help scientists to develop smaller, more easily made molecules that have the same therapeutic effect.

Improved crystals of human insulin will help improve treatment for diabetes and potentially create a cure. Diabetes costs the US $98 billion dollars annually. The average lifetime cost of diabetes care for a person diagnosed at age 3 is $600,000. New cases of diabetic blindness and kidney failures increase the cost of diabetes by $1.5 billion annually .

Anchorage dependent cells attached to a polymer and grown in a bioreactor in microgravity will lead to the production of a commercial protein that is closer in structure and function to the three-dimensional protein living in the body. This should help reduce or eliminate transplant rejection and is therefore critical for organ transplant and for the replacement of damaged bone and tissues. Rejection of artificial transplants will be greatly reduced and possibly eliminated. Cells grown on Earth are far from being three-dimensional due to the effect of Earths gravity.

In the US alone, there are over 20,000 organ transplants and 480,000 bone and skin grafts performed annually .