NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold steadies his hand. He job is to insert 10 microliters of fluid into a microplate and watch as crystals grow. Ten microliters amount to a single droplet from his pipette, so Arnold must be exceedingly precise—which is a challenge, because he is floating inside the International Space Station.
Arnold repeats the process 96 times, filling small cells in the microplate with a solution mixed to grow protein crystals. He also tests ways to mix the solution with a crystal-seeding material. Cameras record the entire procedure.
A week later, the companies behind the experiment release the results: the crystals are blooming.
Why Space Crystals Matter
Protein molecules will move around inside a fluid—cycling like a buoyant fish tank decoration—making the crystals grow faster and smaller. Outside of Earth’s gravity, protein molecules move and therefore crystalize via randomized diffusion. This leads to more orderly crystal growth and fewer impurities, which in turn makes it easier for drug companies to study specific proteins.
Proteins are the key to much of the body’s functions, but studying individual protein molecules is extremely difficult because they are so small. However, clever researchers have figured out that growing a crystal from protein molecules will create a repeating array that can reveal the molecular structure. If they know the protein’s structure, they can design medicine with it.
“If you know the structure of what a protein looks like, you can then better design molecules to fit it into that protein and turn it on or off,” cancer researcher Kenneth Savin recently said during a NASA tour of a treatment center. “That’s the basis for a lot of drugs.”
Merck & Co., for example, like these orderly crystals for formulating cancer immunotherapy drugs. Oak Ridge National Laboratory has used ISS-grown crystals to develop an antidote for nerve gas. The Michael J. Fox Foundation grew crystals of a protein identified with Parkinson’s disease. These research opportunities make last week’s experiment that much more meaningful. With fewer barriers, more medical research using protein crystals can be undertaken in space.
Breaking Bad in Orbit
Ricky Arnold’s space pipetting was part of the Barrios Protein Crystal Growth experiment, conducted with the firm NanoRacks, which solves an expensive problem. “This investigation is unique as the analysis and optimization is happening on-orbit, in real time,” NanoRacks said in a statement.
Previously, protein samples had been flown to the ISS, crystallized in microgravity, and then returned to Earth. Back on the planet, researchers could analyze the results of the experiment and, often, and the launch and experiment all over again to test the crystals under optimized growth conditions.
Last week’s mass-production of crystals in orbit streamlines the process. New tweaks to the formula are made easy with a large enough tray, a small enough pipette and an astronaut willing to take some direction. Making the crystallization process cheaper is a good way to spur more research.
Barrios and NanoRacks are working on second of three follow-ups experiments. The hardware for the BCG experiment’s second phase has already been handed to NASA for launch this summer on a SpaceX rocket.
The current medical research on board the International Space Station is a reminder of the benefits that routine spaceflight could bring. Humanity now has only a toehold in space, and microgravity science is so new that the equipment to do it is just now being developed and tested. When people talk about the industrialization of space, they may not think about a cure for cancer. But the key to that kind of breakthrough may one day be found overhead, in low Earth orbit.