For years scientists had to beg for access to the space shuttle to conduct microgravity research, until a well-timed salmonella discovery helped cinch a spot for Spacehab Inc. on all but one of the shuttle's remaining scheduled flights.
"The timing couldn't have been better," Spacehab President Jim Royston said June 16, two days after Space Shuttle Discovery returned from the international space station with test tubes of the salmonella bacteria.
Amid growing concern about salmonella outbreaks and an increase in the bacteria's resistance to existing medicine, Spacehab sent a second round of salmonella vaccine research to the space station May 31. Previous tests have shown salmonella is more virulent in microgravity, although scientists are not sure why.
Royston leaves the increased virulence question to scientists. His mission now is to take results of the Discovery mission, which validated similar findings aboard Endeavour in March, to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He hopes the agency will allow Spacehab to begin human trials of a salmonella vaccine by October.
The Webster, Texas-based company has a list of 20 other infectious diseases to send to the space station for vaccine research. On each of 10 upcoming shuttle flights, Spacehab will send between eight and 16 of its Group Activation Packs polycarbonate cylinders containing eight 114-millimeter test tubes. With the turn of a handle, an astronaut will release bacteria-eating worms and growth nutrients from one end of each test tube to mix with disease-causing bacteria in a separate compartment at the other end of the tube. The packs also have a motor and can be activated remotely.
"Salmonella is a good bacteria to prove that our system is stable and reliable," Royston said. "We've shown it's extremely reliable, it meets all requirements and opens the door to move other vaccine candidates through this pipeline."
Through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Spacehab will share its research but retain commercial rights. Veterans Affairs may use the data to conduct its own research or to treat its patients, Royston said, adding that in exchange, Spacehab has access to VA facilities.
A medical breakthrough such as the discovery of a salmonella vaccine could generate enthusiasm in the community of scientists who previously faced limited space access while the shuttle transported massive parts for space station construction. With the $100 billion space station nearly complete and its designation as a National Laboratory, new opportunities have emerged.
"Before, we had no destination. The shuttle was doing its best to do simple research," Royston said. "Now all of the sudden with the space station completion ? we have open-door access to what is probably mankind's greatest achievement."
NASA has made about half of its space station research space available to commercial enterprise through the National Laboratory, which will go a long way with reluctant investors, Royston said. Once the shuttle is retired, Spacehab can fly experiments to the space station on the Russian-built Soyuz and Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle. Soyuz can return small samples, while other samples will produce data that can be recorded and retrieved without returning the samples, he said.
"If the market is there then the capability is there to do it. That's what we're trying to show on this first one," he said. "We see it as a tool to get better data faster."
In May, Spacehab established a subsidiary, BioSpace Technolgies Inc., for its biotechnology research both space-based and on the ground. The company, headed by Royston for now, hired as its chief science officer Jeanne Becker, vice president and associate director of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute in Houston.
Spacehab's efforts have drawn support from the state of Florida, which has lured major biotechnology companies to a 23-county high-tech corridor stretching from coast to coast in North and Central Florida, and includes Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The state's space arm, Space Florida, has committed $90,000 to the salmonella project, and Steve Kohler, president of Space Florida, plans to ask his board to approve $210,000 more.
"This is exposing an opportunity to connect space-related research and a customer group that might not otherwise be thinking about it, like biotech and pharmaceutical companies," Kohler said. "We can connect these kinds of opportunities to the international space station."
The partnership brings more than just money. As part of the agreement, Spacehab research can be conducted at Florida's Space Life Sciences Laboratory, a $30 million facility at Cape Canaveral. The lab can provide ground control and data transmission for on-orbit experiments and pre- and post-flight integration, Kohler said.
Royston said the partnership opens access to Florida's research institutes, large pharmaceutical companies and universities.
"The value of the partnership is immeasurable for what it brings," Royston said.
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