NASA biotechnology activities enhancing quality of life

June 24, 2003

What do an anthrax-killing device, soybeans in space, artificial bone replacement materials, light-emitting diodes for wound healing, a new medicine to treat bone loss, a water bottle that filters out bacteria, a perfume, and advanced techniques for pharmaceutical drug design have in common?

These technologies and others have or are being developed by more than 150 companies that are partners with NASA's Space Product Development Program (SPDP) and its 15 Research Partnership Centers (RPC's) across America.

"Industry is interested in many of the same revolutionary products and technologies that NASA needs to explore the universe," said Mark Nall, director of the Space Commerce Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), Huntsville, Ala. "When industry, academia and NASA come together, industry positions itself for growth in new commercial markets, while academia and NASA benefit from innovative research and technological tools for exploration," he said.

Space and Osteoporosis Research and Treatment

Muscle and bone loss is one health-related problem that both NASA and industry are tackling. Since bone loss occurs more rapidly in space, Amgen, a biotechnology company with headquarters in Thousand Oaks, Calif., used NASA's Space Shuttle as a test bed for a new medication to treat bone loss or osteoporosis. Amgen discovered osteoprotegerin (OPG) in the mid 1990s, and is conducting human clinical trials to evaluate its safety and effectiveness in treating osteoporosis and its ability to maintain bone density in cancer that has metastasized to bone.

"OPG appears to prevent bone loss in a variety of diseases, including cancer, and we anticipate that a drug based on this molecule will be effective in preserving bone mass, whether in astronauts or the millions of Americans suffering from osteoporosis," said Dr. Paul Kostenuik, a research scientist in Amgen's Metabolic Disorders group.

Amgen works with BioServe Space Technologies Inc., a NASA Research Partnership Center at the University of Colorado, which has completed 23 research missions in 12 years on both the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. BioServe and its industry partners are studying antibiotic production, mammalian cell culture and plant biochemistry.

Crops for Space and Earth

Identifying unique chemical and genetic traits of plants grown in space and using these traits to develop commercial products on Earth is the specialty of another NASA RPC: the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics (WCSAR) at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. With the help of astronaut Peggy Whitson, they grew the first crop of soybeans on the Space Station for their industrial partner, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., a DuPont subsidiary with headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa.

This experiment verified that WCSAR-developed plant growth technologies were capable of producing a major agricultural crop in space. The second objective was to see whether microgravity would alter the production of phytochemicals, such as proteins, oils and carbohydrates, and induce new genetic traits in the soybean seeds produced in space. DuPont pursued this research because it could significantly reduce the time and cost of introducing new varieties of crops with new types of phytochemicals to the marketplace.

Scientists are performing tests on the seeds brought back to Earth in October 2002. Some of the soybean seeds produced in space were planted and did prove to be viable, producing a new crop of plants with seeds on Earth. Scientists have found some of the space seeds' phytochemical compositions are different than those in seeds harvested from the ground control experiment. Researchers are continuing their analysis to determine if these changes in composition result in positive changes to seed quality. "We want to examine the seeds produced by plants grown on the Space Station to see if they have any unique, desirable traits," said Dr. Tom Corbin, a research scientist for Pioneer Hi-Bred. "If we find changes, then we want to know if the positive traits can be inherited genetically by future generations of plants for the benefit of farmers and consumers."

This commercial experiment and others that study plant growth are paving the way for improving crops grown on Earth, as well as potentially feeding people living in space. The Space Station gives companies a chance to grow plants that are larger and require several months to mature. Several new products, including an anthrax-killing device, a system derived from an ethylene scrubber that keeps fruits and vegetables fresher when they are stored or transported, wound healing and surgical tools, all evolved from technology that WCSAR originally developed to grow plants on the Space Station.

Drug Discovery Through Space Research

The Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering (CBSE), an RPC located at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, partners with industry to enable NASA to stretch research dollars. The CBSE, under the direction of Dr. Larry DeLucas, a payload specialist on Shuttle mission STS-50, is a leading structural biology center with one of the largest facilities in the world for X-ray crystallography, as well as a platform of proprietary high throughput technologies designed for structure based drug discovery.

CBSE has developed a suite of technologies to rapidly determine the biological structures necessary to produce new therapeutics and pharmaceuticals. This research has led to the development of drugs designed to treat various chronic and infectious diseases. The predictive power that comes from molecular research in the drug discovery process can significantly advance the launch of new drugs for the safety and health of humans on earth and those traveling in space.

The SPDP is part of NASA's Office of Biological and Physical Research at Headquarters in Washington. For more information about research and science programs, visit:

For information about NASA and commercial space exploration on the Internet, visit:

For information about the Space Product Development Program, visit:

For information about the BIO 2003 Conference, visit:

To download photographs to accompany this news release, visit:

NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center News Center

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