A team from Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute will have its research carried out from earth and space, where plate reader technology installed on the International Space Station (ISS) in July will used for the first time in tests that may aid in future drug development.

Siobhan Malany, Ph.D., and Steve Vasile, Ph.D., lead the research team, which will oversee the tests to be conducted simultaneously at Sanford-Burnham and at the U.S. National Lab aboard the ISS, where the SpectraMax M5 microplate reader, with SpectraMax Pro software, will get its first workout in space.

Equipment needed for the tests will be transported to the ISS via the Space X Falcon 9 launch vehicle, set to lift off in December 2013. Falcon 9’s owner, SpaceX, in May became the world’s first private company to launch a cargo payload, sending it to the space station.

“These are real baby steps for transferring this technology to a microgravity space environment. We’re quite a ways off from speeding up drug development,” Dr. Malany, chemical biology team leader in Sanford-Burnham’s Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics at Lake Nona in Orlando, FL, told GEN. “It’s a new platform, with new possibilities and unique opportunities. At least scientists now can start to investigate some of the answers to these questions about basic life science, differences in CV systems, and gene expressions and protein activities.”

“Fundamental First Questions”

The team wants to learn how effective medicines can be in microgravity, as well as explore cellular pathways that can serve as targets for new drugs. Among basic questions the researchers are trying to answer: How differently do proteins bind, and spin in solution, in microgravity compared with earth?

One experiment will entail scientists measuring fluorescence to gauge changes in the speed of molecular rotation as an antibody binds to biotin in a buffer solution on the ISS, and comparing the readings to those on earth when the antibody hooks up with the vitamin in solution.

“That’s just the question we’re asking, whether you can detect changes in solution. Will the proteins bind weaker or more potently? Will they tumble differently? Those are really the fundamental first questions,” Dr. Malany said. “The complex is very stable. We’re not mixing anything. We’re pre-binding, so it’s more of a foolproof experiment.”

The solutions themselves require study as well, since salt and viscosity levels too may affect molecular rotation speed.

Cells in the Wells

Longer-term, she envisions mixing things in real-time: “You’ve got to develop plates that have mixing capabilities or capillaries, because they’d have to be in a sealed environment.”

“For future experiments, now that you have the plate technology and the reader, you can put cells or organisms in the wells, and actually think about how gene expressions may be different in microgravity. Then you can actually do some more therapeutic discoveries, and find potential new medicines using cell-based systems, for example,” Dr. Malany said.

Drs. Malany and Vasile co-lead one of two Sanford-Burnham teams that won the Space Florida’s ISS Research Competition. The other Sanford-Burnham team will transport fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) to the space station to study how space travel affects astronaut cardiovascular systems. That team is co-led by Sanford-Burnham’s Rolf Bodmer, Ph.D., and Karen Ocorr, Ph.D., with Peter Lee, Ph.D., of Stanford University, and Sharmila Bhattacharya, Ph.D., of NASA Ames Research Center.

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