With Orbital ATK scheduled to conduct its seventh cargo resupply mission (CRS-7) no earlier than April 18, the Cygnus vehicle will be carrying more than 40 sponsored investigations destined for the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory. As Orbital ATK and its launch partner, United Launch Alliance, prepare for this mission, it is a terrific reminder that 2017 continues to be a busy year for launches full of innovative microgravity research experiments to benefit life on Earth.
Among the experiments on the Cygnus vehicle is a cancer treatment drug study led by principal investigator Sourav Sinha of Boston, MA. This Oncolinx Pharmaceuticals, LLC investigation, Antibody Drug Conjugates (ADCs) in Microgravity, is testing the efficacy and drug metabolism of Azonafide ADCs in microgravity 3-D cell cultures. ADCs are an important class of highly potent biopharmaceutical drugs designed as a targeted therapy for cancer treatment. Cell cultures grown in microgravity closely compare to tumors in the human body and are more comparable than those grown on Earth. These 3-D structures of tumors provide researchers with the information needed to create cancer models that may improve drug therapies and shorten the amount of time it takes to get cancer treatments to the people who need them. At a basic level, this research improves understanding of the differences in drug performance in microgravity and Earth environments. It also identifies specific changes caused by the microgravity environment and how those may influence drug performance and reduce the side effects associated with treatments like chemotherapy.
Also among the investigations heading to the microgravity environment of the ISS on OA CRS-7 are two exciting education projects. The first is a study examining the rigors of spaceflight on the human body. The experiment, Genes in Space-2, is sponsored by the Boeing Company as part of the Genes in Space competition—an annual competition in which students in grades 7 through 12 compete to send their DNA experiment to the ISS. We’ve all seen astronauts enjoy the experience of weightlessness in microgravity, but there is still some mystery surrounding what happens to the human body when exposed to the harsh environment of space for prolonged periods of time. The Genes in Space-2 experiment (with lead student investigator Julian Rubinfien of New York City) aims to understand how the regulation of telomeres (protective caps on the tips of chromosomes) can change during spaceflight.
It is possible that changes, or stresses, in the length of telomeres can lead to a variety of diseases, including cardiovascular disease and various cancers. Some shortening of telomeres over the course of a person’s life is normal, but determining if astronauts experience accelerated deterioration of telomeres is crucial to protecting astronaut health on future long-duration spaceflight missions. Here on Earth, a better understanding of how telomeres work may help researchers gain a better understanding of aging and disease development.
Researchers and academics from 15 countries collaborated on another education investigation launching on OA CRS-7 that has global implications—the QB50 program. This project, coordinated by the QB50 program and funded by the European Union, plans to monitor different gaseous molecules and electrical properties of the thermosphere, a previously hard-to-reach and barely studied section of the atmosphere.
How do they plan to oversee and track these atmospheric activities? CubeSats, or small satellites—28 of them. Once released from the ISS, the CubeSats will spend one to two years taking coordinated measurements of the thermosphere to learn more about our planet’s weather from space over time. NanoRacks serves as the hardware partner on this and several other projects going up on this mission.
Education projects such as these are poised to excite and engage the next generation of leaders and innovators, while also driving true science initiatives capable of informing the research community. To learn more about the array of investigations that are launching on OA CRS-7, see the the ISS National Lab mission overview that features all payloads onboard the Cygnus vehicle. From life sciences to materials sciences and Earth observation, this mission is a testament to the broad research capabilities of our orbiting laboratory!