Science Haiku #1

BY: Julia Sable
Date Added: February 24th, 2017

On Thursday, February 23, a SpaceX Dragon capsule successfully berthed with the International Space Station. The mission is called SpaceX CRS-10 (Commercial Resupply Services 10). Astronauts are already starting to unload its 2.5 tons of cargo, which includes crew supplies, spare parts, and many science experiments.

As a fun way to introduce some of the exciting new experiments aboard the Station, we’re posting a series of science haiku poems. Here’s the first one:

Protein crystal growth

Targeted antibodies

Better immune drug

When detecting and treating immune diseases and cancers, the same approach does not work on every patient. Researchers in the field of personalized medicine aim to develop a targeted treatment for each patient, and monoclonal antibodies are essential to this approach.

Monoclonal antibodies are bioengineered molecules that enhance the immune system’s natural efforts to fight disease. They are highly targeted, binding only to specific diseased cells, but we don’t yet have full control of this targeting. If bioengineers could understand all the details of an antibody’s molecular structure, they could interpret how it works, especially how it attaches to other molecules. They might even control its performance by adjusting its structure.

The leading technique for determining a biological molecule’s structure is to study crystals of the molecule with X-rays. But under Earth conditions it’s hard to make monoclonal antibody crystals that are large and pure enough for reliable analysis.

Crystals grown in Earth gravity (top) and microgravity (bottom)

The difference between protein crystals grown on the ground (top) versus in microgravity (bottom). Image courtesy of Merck

Enter the International Space Station. In its microgravity environment, crystals grow larger and purer than on Earth! In previous flight experiments, Merck Laboratories demonstrated the crystals’ improved quality and size and also noted the ability to grow “showers” of smaller, more uniform crystals.

Tracy Dyson works with MERLIN locker

This 2010 photo shows NASA astronaut and chemist Tracy Dyson working with the MERLIN locker aboard the ISS. Image credit: NASA

In the CASIS-sponsored Protein Crystal Growth 5 experiment, Merck Laboratories researchers will grow smaller, uniform crystals of a monoclonal antibody that shows promise for treating an immunological disease. The crystals will form gradually over 18 days while being held at a constant temperature in the Microgravity Experiment Research Locker Incubator, or MERLIN. The samples will return to Earth for analysis, and researchers will use the data to improve how this drug is produced, transported, and given to patients.