Jewish World Review April 17, 2001 / 24 Nissan, 5761
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- Space may be the ideal place to grow antibiotics.
To find out, scientists at the University of Colorado, in collaboration with the Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceutical Research Institute, are launching an experiment Thursday.
A desk drawer-sized box filled with microbial cell cultures will fly on NASA's space shuttle to the International Space Station, where the cultures will be producing an antibiotic compound in space for three months. Researchers hope the knowledge gained will improve antibiotic production on Earth - reducing costs and speeding up research and development.
Previous experiments, flown on shuttle flights between six and 16 days long, have shown that production of the antibiotic actinomycin D increased by 75 percent in space. Actinomycin D is a special class of antibiotic that also has applications in treating certain types of cancer.
This week's space flight allows the cell cultures to continue antibiotic production for a much longer duration.
"It's safe to say any kind of research always takes more than one experiment," said Louis Stodieck, director of the university's BioServe Space Technologies Center. "This experiment is meant to confirm what we've seen before - we are looking at how these microorganisms might respond in microgravity. It's possible that some new compound will be produced and then there's potential for a whole new drug."
To compare production activity, the same experiment will be conducted on Earth. Scientists want to be able to attribute any differences in antibiotic production to gravity.
"The key here is to be careful to isolate gravity as the variable," Stodieck said. "We want to compare apples to apples."
Ray Lam, a senior principal scientist at Bristol-Myers Squibb in Connecticut, said the institute is eagerly awaiting the results of the experiment.
"We already observe some increase in the production of antibiotics in space," he said. "But this micro-organism may go through several generations, so we will not only see if there is improved production but also (if there are) new chemicals."
The box that holds the six cell cultures, designed by BioServe, is highly sophisticated. The microbial cell cultures will be fed, their wastes will be removed and their byproducts will be sampled periodically without the need for human hands. Jim Voss, one of three astronauts living on the space station, will help bring the experiment on board the station and monitor the experiment.
Unlike laboratory experiments, scientists can't analyze the samples or see results immediately. But perhaps the wait will be worth it.
"This is like having a microscope for the first time," Klaus said. "We are looking at weightlessness in this way for the first time."
On the Web: www.colorado.edu/engineering/BioServe.
Beth Wohlberg writes for the Daily Camera in Boulder, Co. Comment by clicking here.