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Imagine finding a cure for breast cancer, cystic fibrosis, or for a genetic disease that attacks newborn infants. With support from the Canadian Space Agency's (CSA) Microgravity Sciences Program, scientists from seven cities across Canada prepared biotechnology flight experiments that could help lead to advanced treatment of and possible cures for these and other debilitating diseases, as well as bacterial and viral infections. In the microgravity environment of space, they grew larger, more perfect protein crystals through the CAPE (Canadian Protein Crystallization Experiment) research opportunity on the Russian Space Station Mir.
Launched to Mir in 1997, the CAPE experiment comprised some 660 wells, which can be thought of as test tubes, that were processed over a period of several months. Of the 660 wells available for this project, the majority contained samples from 12 Canadian universities and research institutions. Forty-four wells contained student experiments as part of a CSA initiative to motivate students in the sciences.
Protein crystallization is a process used to determine the structure of proteins. When proteins in high concentration are put in a liquid solution, they usually form small regular structures called crystallites or nuclei and it is from these crystallites that a single crystal protein will grow. The protein crystals are subsequently analyzed by X-ray diffraction to determine their structure, but this is only possible when the crystals are large and pure. Scientists analyze the structure in order to study the molecular architecture of the crystallized protein, which prompts the understanding of how molecules interact. Knowledge of protein structures can be used to design more effective drugs to combat disease.
Because protein crystals are fragile, it is difficult to grow adequately large or perfect protein crystals in earth-based laboratories. However, in the microgravity environment of space, there are no gravity-induced effects such as sedimentation and convection to disrupt the growth of these fragile protein crystals; therefore, the chance of growing larger, more perfect crystals is greatly improved. Thus microgravity protein crystals may significantly accelerate drug development research.