This Space for Hire

Quick: What's smaller than a sandwich, sturdy as a brick, and can juggle eight cell-biology experiments while sailing through Earth's upper atmosphere?

The Penn State BioModule, of course. Designed by biochemist Roy Hammerstedt, this "automated minilab" is racking up frequent-flyer miles on NASA rockets, toting tiny payloads of minced rat glands, cranberry stems, and chameleon skin into space. All in the name of science—and commerce.

In a gross sense, some effects of weightlessness—actually near-weightlessness, or microgravity—are well-known. The absence of gravity's constant tug has the same effect on the body as months of Earth-bound lying in bed: Cardiovascular fitness goes to pot, the bones and muscles waste away, even the immune system gets weaker. But in space, these processes are greatly accelerated.

The question is why. How exactly does weightlessness effect cells? Answers could provide clues to the aging process. Experiments at the molecular level could offer insights into complex mechanisms like wound healing, which is also impaired in space.

In commercial terms, microgravity could offer an efficient model for drug testing, speeding the development of products aimed at combatting degenerative diseases like osteoporosis. Absence of gravity could also prove useful in areas like plant genetics, where its presumed weakening effect on tough-to- penetrate plant-cell walls might facilitate genetic manipulations.

And those are only a few of the possibilities, says cell biologist William Wilfinger. Wilfinger is director of physiological testing for Penn State's Center for Cell Research, which commissioned—and controls—the BioModule. Formed in 1985, the Center is one of 17 NASA affiliates serving as liaisons between the agency and commercial research partners: providing encouragement, equipment, and expertise before, during, and after microgravity experiments. "Our industrial partners really are pioneers," Wilfinger says, "and we try to make that as painless as possible."

In 1987 the Center, seeking a simple device that could perform cell experiments without supervision, contacted Hammerstedt. They wanted, and got, someone who would tackle the problem as a potential user.

"The equipment then available was highly specialized," remembers Hammerstedt. "Scientists had to adapt their experiments to fit the design. We needed something we could customize as we went along."

Something that could precisely and efficiently do in space what Hammerstedt says biochemists like himself do on Earth, "which is mostly pour water from one container to another, with varying degrees of accuracy. Then we measure things after it's over."

There were strict NASA parameters to be considered. The ideal hardware for a space mission "weighs nothing, occupies no volume, consumes no power," Hammerstedt says. For its first flight, in fact, the Center for Cell Research was allotted an area no bigger than a shoebox. And there were the scheduling limitations, too, to work around. "If I can get on a rocket flight only every six months," Hammerstedt remembers thinking, "I want a maximum return—I want to run more than one experiment at a time."

Standard fluid-moving mechanisms—syringes and pumps—would be too bulky and fragile. Instead, Hammerstedt opted for something simpler: an inverted T made of flexible silicone tubing. By adding yokes and spring-loaded plates, he crafted a nifty three-chambered device: two pressurized side compartments and a central reservoir. Two discrete fluids held in separate ends of the T could, on a signal from a small computer, be flushed into the third chamber. Eight such T-tubes set in a compact metal housing, and Hammerstedt had his BioModule.

In one early—and well-publicized—experiment, he placed brown chameleon skin cells in the center of a T. A computer signal released adrenalin from the left end, and soon after, another brought a quenching agent flooding in from the right to fix the reaction. The brown cells failed to go green, as they would have on Earth. The experiment showed that—at least for this test system—microgravity makes a difference at the cell level.

The BioModule has since been used to launch rat pituitary and bone cells, as well as plant cells and protein crystals. "We're negotiating to fly some bacteria," says Wilfinger, "to look at fermentation in space."

In February, the Penn State device was awarded U.S. patent number 5,188,455. Center scientists continue to tinker with what Wilfinger calls "a nifty piece of hardware." Besides collecting data after an experiment, Wilfinger says, they should soon be able to measure processes like glucose consumption, oxygen consumption, and hormonal output continuously, in real time.

Gradually, too, the BioModule is working its way from rocket flights, which provide only five to seven minutes of microgravity, onto longer flights, essential for extended operations like growing protein crystals. This spring, a nest of BioModules flew aboard the COMET satellite on a 30-day mission. Later this year, another set of the devices will hitch aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.

Roy H. Hammerstedt, Ph.D., is professor of biochemistry in the Eberly College of Science, 406 Althouse Lab, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-4342. William W. Wilfinger, Ph.D., is director for physiological testing at the Center for Cell Research, A NASA Center for the Commercial Development of Space, 3 Althouse Lab.

Last Updated June 01, 1993