A Bedford biotech company is going a long way in the search for lifesaving drugs: 240 miles straight up.
Emerald BioSystems Inc. is part of team of researchers using the low-gravity atmosphere of the International Space Station to develop a more complete understanding of the intricate structure of proteins, which in turn would give drug makers more insight into treating diseases.
“Name a disease, and a protein is involved,” said Cory Gerdts, Emerald Bio’s instrument systems product manager. To create new drugs, “you have to understand what the proteins involved in causing that disease or curing that disease are doing.”
The experiment involves turning proteins into crystals, which allows scientists to make extremely detailed three-dimensional images of a protein’s structure.
Protein crystals are also cultivated in labs on terra firma, but gravity can cause liquids to settle or circulate in ways that prevent the formation of well-ordered crystals. That problem is largely eliminated in space, where the pull of gravity is much weaker. This “microgravity” environment should produce picture-perfect crystals.
And the more refined and well-ordered the crystal, the better scientists can determine which proteins affect which diseases. The ultimate goal is to use that information to develop more effective treatments with fewer side effects, or new drugs for untreated diseases.
Emerald Bio was founded in the 1990s by scientists at the University of Washington who came up with highly efficient ways to isolate and identify the structures of proteins. The company’s system mixes proteins with other chemicals that will cause them to turn into crystals, not unlike grains of salt. A crystal is then bombarded with X-rays to generate the 3-D image of its structure.
“The Holy Grail of protein crystallography isn’t just to get protein crystals,” Gerdts said. “It’s to get protein crystals that are extremely well-ordered.” That’s because precisely shaped crystals more accurately diffract the X-rays, producing a sharper image of the protein.
While it may sound like the stuff of science fiction, cultivating protein crystals has produced real-world progress.
Dr. Julie Robinson, space station program scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said a review of the agency’s protein crystallization research from the last decade shows promising results.
“There are definitely some proteins that you can get better crystals in space,” Robinson said.
Moreover, Robinson said, crystallization experiments by a Japanese space program isolated a protein that has led to a drug to treat muscular dystrophy. It is currently being tested on animals, prior to possible human trials.
Carl Carruthers, a researcher at Methodist Hospital Research Institute in Houston, developed the current crystal project after being involved in two prior experiments on the space station and finding the shuttle’s crystallization gear obsolete.
“I was not impressed with the equipment that they had,” Carruthers said.
Carruthers approached nearby NanoRacks, which for as little as $15,000 will help companies, researchers — even budding young scientists — launch experiments to the space station and bring them safely back to earth . The company has launched more than 80 payloads to the station, on unmanned rockets operated by Japan, Russia, and the European Space Agency, as well as the SpaceX Dragon. High school students in California and Israel have used NanoRacks to put experiments into orbit.
“We’re the first company in the world to own our own hardware on the space station and market it commercially,” said NanoRacks’ chief executive, Jeffrey Manber.
Carruthers suggested that NanoRacks launch Emerald Bio cards, to see whether the company’s crystal-forming techniques would work in space. Emerald Bio works with extremely small quantities of protein, injected onto plastic cards about the size of a microscope slide. Each card can hold 200 tiny measures of protein mixed with crystal-forming chemicals.
Carruthers selected five well-known proteins to be injected into 25 crystallization cards, for a total of 5,000 experiments.
A slightly different blend of chemicals is used in every chamber, to see which does the best job of encouraging the formation of crystals. The entire package was smaller than a shoebox.
To ensure that crystal formation would not start until the cards were in orbit, they were flash-frozen in liquid nitrogen to about 400 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
At the space station, the cards were snapped into a rack owned by NanoRacks and the proteins allowed to thaw slowly and begin crystal formation. The package of cards will stay aloft until May, when it will be returned to Earth on a Russian Soyuz capsule.
Carruthers will then compare the crystals grown in space with a similar set that remained on Earth, to see whether they are are superior in quality.
The project has its skeptics.
“We were told in the 1980s that space-based materials processing would make the blind see, the lame walk, and raise the dead,” said aerospace analyst John E. Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a publication on national defense issues. “It never happened.”
Pike said Carruthers’ crystallization experiments would probably fare no better. “It gives the crew up there something to do besides look out the window,” he said.
But if the space-born crystals are superior, they could bring a big payoff by speeding the development of new drugs.
“If it does work, it’ll be a significant leap in the technology,” said Carruthers, who predicted that researchers seeking cures for cancer, HIV infection, and other deadly illnesses would be lining up to launch their own orbital protein experiments.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org