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Researchers believe opportunties for science in space will continue

Houston, TX - 7/22/2011

Although disappointed by the retirement of the Space Shuttle program, a former astronaut and a biochemist who has flown experiments aboard the last two U.S. space shuttle missions both believe the outlook on research in a near-zero gravity environment should remain optimistic.

Scott Parazynski, M.D., chief medical officer and chief technology officer for The Methodist Hospital Research Institute, has flown on five shuttle missions (STS-66, STS-86, STS-95, STS-100, and STS-120). He says researchers will increasingly rely on the International Space Station (ISS).

Space shuttle experiment
Aboard space shuttle mission STS-134, astronauts oversee a wide variety of experiments. At right is Commander Mark Kelly. Photo courtesy of NanoRacks LLC

"The ISS is enhanced with six full-time crewmembers to operate experiments," Parazynski said. "American researchers will have continued access to space -- even without the space shuttle to fly crews and scientific payloads -- using a variety of spacecraft from the U.S., such as SpaceX, Orbital, and Boeing, as well as spacecraft operated by programs based in Russia, Europe, and Japan."

Carl Carruthers, a research assistant in the lab of John Baxter, M.D., and Paul Webb, Ph.D., who study diabetes-related proteins for the Research Institute, agrees the opportunities for conducting experiments in microgravity aboard the ISS or in collaboration with other space agencies' programs are going to increase.

"In part because of the work of contractors, who act as go-betweens to secure room for these experiments with various partners around the world, the entire process is becoming faster and easier than ever before," said Carruthers, a biochemist. "It's sad to see the end of the U.S. shuttle program, but it doesn't mean American scientists who need access to microgravity will struggle to see their projects completed. It doesn't mean that at all."\

Carruthers said businesses that negotiate on scientists' behalf for access to the ISS have helped make the end of the U.S. shuttle program a non-issue for conducting research in space. Houston-based NanoRacks LLC has served that function for NASA's most recent shuttle missions, and will continue to facilitate science projects for the U.S.-operated segments of the ISS by arranging for American scientists' projects to be flown up by other means.

"The ISS is an excellent facility and it'll be up there for a long time," he said. "Unlike the space shuttles, which were never really intended to be science machines, the ISS is highly dedicated to scientific research. If anything, it's under-utilized."

Carruthers has been looking at how diabetes-related proteins crystallize in microgravity. The formation of protein crystals is crucial to an analytical technique called protein crystallography, which is used to determine the shape, structure, and function of proteins. Understanding proteins through-and-through helps medical scientists design new drugs that more effectively alter the proteins' behavior.

Carruthers had experiments flown on U.S. Space Shuttle mission STS-134 in May (Endeavor), and has a similar experiment on the current shuttle mission, STS-135 (Atlantis), scheduled to end later this month. As part of an education outreach initiative, Carruthers has been working with Broward College Professor Rolando Branly and student researchers to analyze the crystals and gather data. Equipment and sample integration is provided/ by Instrumentation Technology Associates, Inc. (ITA) and NanoRacks LLC arranged for the mid-deck locker facilities aboard Atlantis.

Parazynski and Caruthers aren't the only Methodist researchers with an interest in microgravity. In 2009, a team led by Research Institute President and CEO Mauro Ferrari, Ph.D., and Department of Nanomedicine Co-Chair Alessandro Grattoni, Ph.D., won the Heinlein Prize Trust's Microgravity Research Competition. The scientists were given a prize and, in collaboration with the private space exploration company SpaceX, the opportunity to study the physical chemistry of drug release in low orbit.

Both Parazynski and Carruthers were present for the launch of STS-135 on July 8.

Carruthers receives funding for his experiments from the National Institutes of Health and The Methodist Hospital Research Institute.

 

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