Published: Jan. 26, 2000

Several space shuttle experiments flown by the University of Colorado at Boulder-based BioServe Space Technologies Center in October 1998 show promise for developing new biomedical products, according to recent research results.

Aerospace engineering sciences Assistant Professor David Klaus said an antibiotic production experiment involving microbes showed the production of the antibiotic actinomycin D was 75 percent higher in space than in ground-control experiments. The tests, conducted in collaboration with Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceutical Research Institute in Wallingford, Conn., took place during the flight of Discovery that returned astronaut John Glenn to space.

Similar experiments flown by BioServe in the past and carried out in test tubes also showed increases in antibiotic production, although relatively small quantities were produced, said Klaus, Bioserve’s associate director for research and the mission manager for the flight. Actinomycin D is an anti-cancer therapeutic, but its use is still largely experimental due to relatively high toxicity levels.

The modification of the apparatus containing the antibiotic experiments for the flight appears to have made a difference, said Klaus. "We added a new gas-exchange fermentation device, which appears to have stimulated the antibiotic production by 20-fold over the test tube values."

"This device was designed to provide more optimal growth conditions for microorganisms, and should help researchers gain insight into the causes of increased antibiotic productivity," he said. "This represents one more incremental step in eventually being able to reproduce these beneficial responses on Earth."

Headquartered in CU-Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, BioServe is a joint venture between NASA, CU-Boulder and Kansas State University that undertakes a variety of industry-driven, life-science experiments on shuttle flights and involves both students and faculty.

In a related experiment, samples of E. coli bacteria also grew better and more efficiently during the flight than the samples in the ground-control experiment. "The bacteria essentially grew more and consumed less nutrients – in this case glucose – indicating a higher metabolic efficiency in space," Klaus said.

Another BioServe experiment, involving protein crystal growth in collaboration with BioSpace International of College Park, Md., produced crystals roughly equal in size to those grown in the ground-control experiments. But the space grown crystals – which have applications for new drug design – were primarily loose and free-floating, compared to the Earthbound crystals, most of which adhered to walls and membranes and were difficult to remove.

"More importantly, topographical analyses indicated that space-grown crystals were of higher perfection than the ground crystals and had more uniform, sharper diffracted images," he said.

Klaus was one of about a dozen researchers from around the nation that presented new findings from the 1998 Discovery mission at a symposium held at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 27. The symposium was sponsored by NASA and the National Institutes of Health.

BioServe and its industry affiliates will carry out longer-duration experiments on the International Space Station beginning in 2001, said Klaus. "BioServe’s primary objective is to support commercial researchers in exploring mechanisms by which space flight can be used to create a ‘value-added’ benefit in a biotech application."

The shuttle experiments took place inside the Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus, a suitcase-sized device designed and built at CU-Boulder that has flown on 13 space shuttle missions, including two four-month stints on Russia's Mir Space Station. The CGBA contains hundreds of syringe-like devices for mixing fluids in space, as well as other project-specific devices.