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Space Station Crew Begins Research On Improving Crystal Growth For Drug Development

3 April 2017, 12:01 am EDT By Luan Chan Tech Times
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The crew aboard the International Space Station begins their study on crystal growth in microgravity to enhance and speed up the drug development process on Earth.  ( NASA )

The astronauts aboard the International Space Station have been busy with a flurry of activities lately, especially with the scheduled space walks, but the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has not forgotten its important projects, and we don't mean the planned Mars Expedition.

NASA announced on March 31 that the ISS crew will begin conducting their research on crystal cultivation for the benefit of the medical field on the first week of April.

Crystal For Medicine

NASA explains that, for some still unexplained reason, microgravity seems to be instrumental in producing crystals of higher quality than those cultivated under Earth's gravity. There are some theories about what makes space crystals better than Earth-cultivated ones, but no conclusive evidence has been found yet.

Despite the crystal quality mystery, researchers know that crystals of better quality could help medical research develop better drugs. For this reason, the ISS crew will focus on studying two aspects of crystal growth in space in order to support drug development research.

The two studies will primarily focus its investigations on the rate and quality of crystals grown in space (LMM Biophysics 1) and which crystals would benefit from being cultivated in microgravity (LMM Biophysics 3).

LMM Biophysics 1

The first study, titled "The Effect of Macromolecular Transport on Microgravity Protein Crystallization," focuses on testing out the theories on why space-grown crystals are better than Earth crystals.

  • Theory 1: Crystals cultivated in microgravity grow slower because they move slower, thereby lessening the buoyancy-induced convection.
  • Theory 2: Microgravity is instrumental in order to achieve a higher level of purification and leads to less defects.

"When you purify proteins to grow crystals, the protein molecules tend to stick to each other in a random fashion [...] These protein aggregates can then incorporate into the growing crystals causing defects, disturbing the protein alignment, which then reduces the crystal's X-ray diffraction quality," LMM Biophysics 1 primary investigator Lawrence DeLucas said.

Work aboard the ISS is only the first stage because when the microgravity crystals are finally taken back to earth, it would be exposed to an X-ray beam, and that would allow researchers to map out the crystal's protein structure. Not only could the results help in future drug development, researchers would also be able to understand the role of proteins better.

LMM Biophysics 3

The second study, titled "Growth Rate Dispersion as a Predictive Indicator for Biological Crystal Samples Where Quality Can be Improved with Microgravity Growth," is more straightforward in nature. LMM Biophysics 3 will focus on determining which type of crystals benefit the most from being cultivated in microgravity, and of course, its end game is also improving drug development and disease research.

LMM Biophysics 3 primary investigator Edward Snell explained that proteins differ in shape, and its shape determines how well they could be put together. He likened the shape of Earth-cultivated proteins to blocks and jelly beans and said that since the block-shaped ones are already easy to put together to build certain crystals, microgravity is not really necessary for them.

"Others are like jelly beans. When you try and build a nice array of them on the ground, they want to roll away and not be ordered. Those are the ones that benefit from microgravity. What we're trying to do is distinguish the blocks from the jelly beans," Snell said.

Watch the video below to better understand what the ISS crew is working on.

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