Categories: Science

Crystals Grown in Microgravity Lead to New Therapeutics for Disease

Crystals Grown in Microgravity Lead to New Therapeutics for Disease

In microgravity, crystals grow more slowly, but the molecules have time to more perfectly align on the surface of the crystal which returns much better research data. Credit: NASA

The newest Benefits for Humanity video highlights how high-quality crystals grown in microgravity lead to new therapeutics for disease.

In one of many direct Earth applications of International Space Station research, the newest Benefits for Humanity video in the Benefits series highlights how the investigation of protein crystals in space is helping to treat Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), an incurable genetic disorder affecting the muscles with onset usually in early childhood and primarily in young males.

Research into a disease like DMD involves the study of the structure of associated proteins by crystallization, which helps researchers better understand protein function. This comprises making millions of copies of that protein and arranging them in three-dimensional rows. Crystals grown on Earth are impacted by gravity, which may affect the way the molecules align on the surface of the crystal. Researchers have discovered that growing crystals aboard the space station allows for slower growth and higher quality crystals.

Since 2003, scientists with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency have conducted protein crystal growth investigations on the space station, including proteins associated with DMD. Having a better understanding of the protein’s shape enabled researchers to design a drug that fits specifically into a location on the protein associated with DMD. The research team estimates that the drug may be able to slow the progression of DMD by half.

“Studying this protein led to a huge discovery,” said Dr. Yoshihiro Urade, Ph.D., professor at the University of Tsukuba in Tsukuba, Japan. “What we’re talking about is potentially doubling the lifespan of many DMD patients, and it’s all because of research opportunities afforded to us by the International Space Station.”

With many other protein crystal growth studies occurring or planned aboard the space station, many thousands of other proteins’ structures could be determined. This is yet another way the orbiting laboratory is enabling research Off the Earth, For the Earth

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By
Laura Niles, International Space Station Program Science Office and Public Affairs Office

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