Emerald Bio And NanoRacks Test Space's Microgravity As A New Lab For Drug Discovery
The frontier of biomedical research is in a low orbit above the Earth this month. Emerald Bio scientist Cory Gerdts, Ph.D. and The Methodist Hospital Research Institute biochemist Carl Carruthers on behalf of NanoRacks, LLC are trying to learn if protein crystals grown in microgravity will help researchers on Earth create drugs that better fight diseases.
Twenty-five of Emerald Bio’s CrystalCards containing more than 5,000 protein crystallization experiments were among more than a ton of research materials and other supplies ferried to the International Space Station March 1st by the commercial spacecraft Dragon operated by SpaceX.
A problem threatened the flight only nine minutes after its liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Pressurized helium lines to its three of its four thrusters became clogged. Once unjammed, the unmanned Falcon 9 rocket safely reached the space station 240 miles above Earth Sunday, March 3, 2013.
Leading protein resource Emerald Bio, headquartered in Bedford, Massachusetts was selected and financed by NanoRacks of Houston, Texas to make the space station’s unique microgravity environment available to crystallography researchers. Since 2009, NanoRacks has offered scientists commercial opportunities to use the U.S. National Lab on space station for education and industry research. Its current signed customer pipeline of more than 80 payloads including domestic and international educational institutions, research organizations and government organizations, has propelled NanoRacks into a leadership position in understanding the emerging commercial market for low‐earth orbit experiments.
At Emerald Bio’s Bainbridge Island (Seattle) laboratory before liftoff, Carruthers, who also writes the Houston Chronicle blog Protein Wrangler and Gerdts, Emerald Bio’s instrument systems product manager, used the Emerald Bio’s microfluidic protein crystallization technology to set up an estimated 5,000 crystallization experiments. The CrystalCards were filled using Emerald Bio’s Plug Maker instrument and then they were flash frozen in liquid nitrogen (between -196C and -210C) to halt protein crystal nucleation.
“Working in microgravity to set up experiments is difficult,” Gerdts said. “The process of setting up experiments on CrystalCards in advance and flash freezing them reduces the risk of experiments failing and lets us try thousands more crystal-growing experiments in space than ever before.”
Growing protein crystals to learn the intricacies of their structure and function is an early step toward creating new drugs that can improve human health.
“We selected Emerald Bio precisely because their hardware and procedures are industry standards,” said Michael Johnson, NanoRacks’ chief technology officer. “It’s time to move beyond space-unique hardware where possible.”
On the space station, astronauts will place the Emerald Bio CrystalCards in NanoRacks’ Crystal-NanoLab to thaw so their nucleation and crystallization behavior resumes in microgravity. Once thawed, these CrystalCards will be maintained at 24 C, the ambient temperature of the space station. During the two-month mission, astronauts will twice record still and moving images of protein crystallization using off-the-shelf, digital, universal serial bus (USB) microscope provided by NanoRacks. The images will be transmitted directly to NanoRacks and shared with Carruthers and Gerdts for review. While low resolution, the microscope offers sufficient image clarity to determine if crystal growth is present. Another 25 matching CrystalCards with an estimated 5,000 experiments remain on Earth as controls.
“We’re trying to determine if better quality protein crystals can be grown in the absence of gravity than on earth,” Gerdts said. “Microgravity of the space station offers us an unadulterated situation that may improve the quality of protein crystals, which in turn we hope pushes the frontier of drug discovery.”
Emerald Bio’s CrystalCards are optimized for success because they allow researchers to vary the concentrations and percentages of a protein, the buffer and the precipitate for the growth of a single protein on a single card. Each card requires only 4uL of one protein, and can accommodate from 400 to 800 variations of crystal growth conditions.
While Spacecraft Dragon is scheduled to return to Earth March 25, returning investigation samples are currently scheduled to return to Russia on Soyuz TMA-07M in May. Once landed, Emerald Bio’s CrystalCards will be returned to NanoRacks in about 24 hours. Determining the results of the experiments will take several months.
“Crystals have been grown in space before but never on this scale,” Gerdts said. “Our goal is to demonstrate the feasibility of biomedical research in microgravity and offer the drug-discovery community the opportunity to participate in advancing medicine in space.”
NanoRacks plans to offer crystallography researchers that opportunity again when SpaceX 4 lifts off in April 2014. NanoRacks will be working with the Center for the Advancement of Science (CASIS) and Emerald Bio to alert government and industry researchers to this new opportunity.
SOURCE: Emerald BioStructures