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: