How Space Can Cure Disease

The miniaturization of satellites opens up possibilities for less than lavishly funded science departments around the world. But universities, electronics companies, and pharmaceutical corporations already occupy a sizeable payload portion of satellites in space. And not just for exploration of space and Earth. The absence of gravity causes crystals to grow unusually large and with almost perfect form, without touching the walls of their containers. These crystals are prized for everything from smartphone components to drugs.

In addition, space is ideal for X-ray crystallography, which examines the structure of molecules. In just one example, researchers probed the protein that causes Huntington’s disease, a terminal degenerative ailment that has yet to yield a cure. The protein is nearly impossible to crystallize on Earth; so in 2014, Caltech researchers sent it up in a SpaceX Dragon capsule to the International Space Station. After the crystals formed in the station’s microgravity environment, they were returned to Earth for lab study. The launch was funded by a NASA contract.

Science on the Space Station gets coordinated by CASIS, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space. The entity has funded and facilitated experiments ranging from vascular tissue research to cell growth on scaffolds (known fondly as “organs on chips”), to fluid dynamics, to remote sensing. CASIS also lets private businesses conduct experiments, and it forms partnerships with nonprofit organizations to spark interest in STEM. For example, Boy Scouts in the Chicago area are readying microgravity experiments for the Space Station, undoubtedly sparking widespread jealousy among budding scientists across the nation.