Published: June 28, 2018 By
SpaceX Dragon

The SpaceX Dragon capsule docked to the International Space Station in May 2018. (Credit: NASA)

Two experiment payloads designed and built at CU Boulder are scheduled to blast off for the International Space Station in the early hours of June 29. 

The payloads, which will launch on board the SpaceX Dragon capsule, will support the study of new treatments for cancer and bacteria that can produce electricity. They’re the latest in a series of experiments developed by BioServe Space Technologies to be carried out by astronauts in microgravity. BioServe is a research center in CU Boulder’s Ann and H.J Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering

The center’s latest studies will deliver results that matter not just for spaceflight buffs but for people on Earth, said Stefanie Countryman, associate director of BioServe. The launch is scheduled to take place at 5:42 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. 

BioServe works with scientists from across the country to help them send their experiments into space, including by building custom hardware that will work on the International Space Station and training astronauts in experimental protocols. BioServe has launched hundreds of life science experiments to date, including studies probing how space travel accelerates bone loss in mammals and how spiders weave webs in microgravity.

The new experiments will join two others from BioServe currently awaiting activation on the International Space Station.

BioServe was founded by NASA in 1987. The center’s partners include large and small pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, universities and NASA-funded researchers. Both undergraduate and graduate CU Boulder students are involved in BioServe research efforts.

“Educating and training the next generation of scientists and engineers is one of the most important activities we do here at BioServe,” Countryman said.  “Our students leave BioServe ready to make significant contributions to the space life sciences, bioastronautics, aerospace engineering and many other fields.”

Cutting off cancer's supply

The first of the two studies will dive into an important topic for people on terra firma: How can doctors cut off the blood supply to cancer cells? The study is led by Angiex, a pharmaceutical company based in Cambridge, Mass, which develops new therapies to block cancer cells from growing blood vessels—choking them off from the oxygen they need to spread. 

It’s difficult, however, to study how such drugs might affect normal tissue because cells grown in petri dishes on Earth don’t form the way they do in the human body. The researchers will examine if culturing cells in the absence of gravity can create better stand-ins for human tissue.

Culture shock

The second experiment will investigate how certain microbes may help space travelers treat wastewater and generate electricity at the same time. Led by John Hogan of the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, the study will focus on the bacterium Shewanella oneidensis

These bacteria pack a one-two punch: They can strip waste products out of sewage and other undesirable liquids and, in the process, generate small electrical charges, making them good candidates for providing clean energy on Earth and in space. Called Micro-12, Hogan’s project will test how colonies of these organisms hold up on board a space station.