NASA Research Helps Map Protein Structures -- Key In The Development Of New Disease-Fighting Drugs

July 21, 1998

Research sponsored by NASA's Microgravity Research Program at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is making significant contributions to scientists' understanding of the molecular structure of living things - a key to the development of new disease-fighting drugs.

Space- and ground-based studies conducted by NASA-sponsored scientists are providing a better understanding of protein structures and functions. Determining the structures of proteins -- which allow living organisms to function -- is essential to the future design of new, more effective drugs against diseases such as AIDS, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, sickle-cell anemia, hepatitis and rheumatoid arthritis.

While ground-based research has been (historically) vital to the discovery of protein structures, in the near-zero gravity environment of space researchers have produced some of the largest, highest-quality protein crystals ever, which is critical for pharmaceutical research. On Earth, the influence of gravity can interfere with the crystal growth process, and this can lead to structural imperfections and poor information.

"At least 60 percent of all protein crystals flown in space produce sufficient overall quality and size to be X-rayed for three-dimensional structure analysis," said Dr. Larry DeLucas, director of the Center for Macromolecular Crystallography at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "Twenty-five percent of the proteins we fly in space produce the best crystallographic data when compared to their earth-grown counterparts."

Already, more than 15 protein structures have been determined from protein crystal growth research, and these findings are being used to improve our knowledge of protein structures.

Some of the space research done with protein crystals that would not have been possible on Earth includes:

"These experiments have provided persuasive evidence that growth in microgravity can produce crystals of larger size, better shape and higher quality than have been obtained on Earth," according to a 1995 report issued by the National Research Council in Washington, D.C. "They also show that benefits from microgravity crystal growth can be crucial to success in protein structure determination."

BioCryst Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Birmingham, Ala.; New Century Pharmaceuticals in Huntsville, Ala.; Parke-Davis in Ann Arbor, Mich.; DuPont Merck Pharmaceutical Company in Wilmington, Del.; the Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo, Mich.; and Eli Lilly & Company in Indianapolis, Ind., are among the 20 companies working with NASA as industry partners in the research of protein crystal structures. More than 85 investigators representing industry and academic affiliates have conducted protein studies in space, resulting in important information needed to help resolve health challenges both in America and other countries around the world.

Note to Editors/News Directors: Photos and video are available to support this release. To arrange interviews with NASA managers of Marshall's Microgravity Research Office, contact Steve Roy of Marshall's Media Relations Office at 256-544-6535.

For more information on protein crystal growth research, visit the NASA Website at:

NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center News Center

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