Launched on January 16 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Space Shuttle Columbia spent 16 days in space before coming to a tragic end during re-entry on February 1st. During this science-driven mission astronauts worked on a hundred microgravity science experiments for researchers from around the world. Two Canadian research projects, which would have eventually led to applications in the health sector, were onboard Columbia: Protein Crystal Growth and OSTEO-2.
The Protein Crystal Growth experiment was a follow-on to the CAPE project, the most important crystal growth mission ever supported by the CSA's microgravity group. The results of CAPE, which flew onboard the space station Mir, revealed that proteins crystallized in microgravity are generally of better quality than those crystallized on earth, and this allows scientists to more quickly gain a good understanding of specific protein structures. A good knowledge of molecular architecture allows for the development of more efficient medication, with fewer side effects. The principal participants in this experiment were Université de Montreal, Université Laval, University of Saskatchewan and Montréal's Biotechnology Research Institute.
Three separate experiments looking at the important issue of bone loss were contained in the OSTEO-2 payload that was lost with Columbia. The OSTEO-2 experiment aimed at better understanding bone loss during spaceflight. The basis of all the experiments was a comparison between bone cell cultures on Earth with comparable cultures grown in microgravity. Specifically it looked into the use of hormones to increase bone formation in microgravity; disturbances in sleep and immune functions may cause impaired bone metabolism; and the characterization and identification of bone gene regulation patterns in microgravity. Canadian partners in the project were Millenium Biologix, NPS_Allelix Pharmaceuticals, St. Michael's Hospitals, the University Health Network and the University of Toronto. Bone loss is a serious problem facing astronauts in long-duration space missions and these experiments would have contributed to an understanding of this phenomenon at the molecular and cellular level. These scientific experiments would have helped scientific progress by answering a number of the community's questions on protein crystal growth and osteoporosis.
This mission nevertheless allowed us to validate our pre-mission operational plan, which was a key element for the success of these experiments. Preparatory activities, such as laboratory tests, transport, handling and placement of the proteins and bone cells in the experimental apparatus was a true challenge, due to the very nature of these temperature-sensitive, short-lived, contamination-prone biological samples. Preliminary results from the ground control experiments attest for the usefulness of the pre-mission activities. Without a doubt, future scientific missions will benefit from this operational experience.