Spacehab Eyes Biomedical Research Opportunities Aboard ISS

For years scientists hadto beg for access to the space shuttle to conduct microgravity research, untila well-timed salmonella discovery helped cinch a spot for Spacehab Inc. on allbut one of the shuttle's remaining scheduled flights.

"The timing couldn'thave been better," Spacehab President Jim Royston said June 16, two daysafter Space Shuttle Discoveryreturned from the international space station with test tubes of thesalmonella bacteria.

Amid growing concernabout salmonella outbreaks and an increase in the bacteria's resistance toexisting medicine, Spacehab sent a second round of salmonella vaccine researchto the space station May 31. Previous tests have shown salmonella is morevirulent in microgravity, although scientists are not sure why.

Royston leaves theincreased virulence question to scientists. His mission now is to take resultsof the Discovery mission, which validated similar findings aboard Endeavourin March, to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He hopes the agencywill allow Spacehab to begin human trials of a salmonella vaccine by October.

The Webster, Texas-basedcompany has a list of 20 other infectious diseases to send to the space stationfor vaccine research. On each of 10 upcoming shuttle flights, Spacehab willsend between eight and 16 of its Group Activation Packs — polycarbonatecylinders containing eight 114-millimeter test tubes. With the turn of ahandle, an astronaut will release bacteria-eating worms and growth nutrientsfrom one end of each test tube to mix with disease-causing bacteria in aseparate compartment at the other end of the tube. The packs also have a motorand can be activated remotely.

"Salmonella is agood bacteria to prove that our system is stable and reliable," Roystonsaid. "We've shown it's extremely reliable, it meets all requirements andopens the door to move other vaccine candidates through this pipeline."

Through a partnershipwith the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Spacehab will share its researchbut retain commercial rights. Veterans Affairs may use the data to conduct itsown research or to treat its patients, Royston said, adding that in exchange,Spacehab has access to VA facilities.

A medical breakthroughsuch as the discovery of a salmonella vaccine could generate enthusiasm in thecommunity of scientists who previously faced limited space access while theshuttle transported massive parts for space station construction. With the $100billion space station nearly complete and its designation as a NationalLaboratory, new opportunities have emerged.

"Before, we had nodestination. 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 halfof its space station research space available to commercial enterprise throughthe NationalLaboratory, which will go a long way with reluctant investors, Roystonsaid. Once the shuttle is retired, Spacehab can fly experiments to the spacestation on the Russian-built Soyuz and Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle.Soyuz can return small samples, while other samples will produce data that canbe recorded and retrieved without returning the samples, he said.

"If the market isthere then the capability is there to do it. That's what we're trying to showon this first one," he said. "We see it as a tool to get better datafaster."

In May, Spacehabestablished a subsidiary, BioSpace Technolgies Inc., for its biotechnologyresearch — both space-based and on the ground. The company, headed by Roystonfor now, hired as its chief science officer Jeanne Becker, vice president andassociate director of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute in Houston.

Spacehab's efforts havedrawn support from the state of Florida, which has lured major biotechnologycompanies to a 23-county high-tech corridor stretching from coast to coast inNorth and Central Florida, and includes Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Thestate's space arm, Space Florida, has committed $90,000 to the salmonellaproject, and Steve Kohler, president of Space Florida, plans to ask his boardto approve $210,000 more.

"This is exposing anopportunity to connect space-related research and a customer group that mightnot otherwise be thinking about it, like biotech and pharmaceutical companies,"Kohler said. "We can connect these kinds of opportunities to theinternational space station."

The partnership bringsmore than just money. As part of the agreement, Spacehab research can beconducted at Florida's Space Life Sciences Laboratory, a $30 million facilityat Cape Canaveral. The lab can provide ground control and data transmission foron-orbit experiments and pre- and post-flight integration, Kohler said.

Royston said thepartnership opens access to Florida's research institutes, large pharmaceuticalcompanies and universities.

"The value of thepartnership is immeasurable for what it brings," Royston said.

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Becky Ianotta is a former SpaceNews reporter covering space industry and policy news from 2008 to 2009. Becky earned a bachelor's degree in English/Journalism from the University of Miami. She spent five years as an editor with the Key West Citizen in Florida before joining the SpaceNews team. She later wrote for Air Force Times before taking her current position as communication director for Mother's Against Drunk Driving.