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Vaccine test marks rise of commercial research in space: NASA

by Staff Writers
Cape Canaveral, Florida (AFP) May 30, 2008
An experiment to develop a salmonella vaccine aboard the US space shuttle Discovery could pave the way for a gush of commercial biotechnology research in space, NASA and biotech industry officials said Friday.

Executives of Spacehab Inc. said that if the company's research on salmonella in the weightlessness of space leads to the vaccine, it would demonstrate the financial attractiveness of doing biotechnology research aboard the shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS).

The company will send its test salmonella strain on board the Discovery when it launches on a 14 day mission on Saturday, planned for 5:02 pm (2102 GMT), weather permitting.

Success would show that "the ISS is now open for business," said Thomas Pickens, chief executive of Spacehab and son of legendary Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens.

Spacehab, seven percent owned by European aerospace giant EADS, has a 23 year history of handling research and other payloads for the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration's and other countries' space flights.

But its business slowed in the past two years as NASA filled up the shuttle with parts for the ISS in its race to complete the station by 2010, leaving less room for payloads like university research projects organized by Spacehab.

So Spacehab decided to combine its special expertise working with space payloads with space biotech research, setting up a subsidiary in 2006, company president James Royston said here Friday.

After combing through numerous proposals, they decided on the first, an attempt to develop a vaccine for salmonella, which infects tens of millions around the world every year and poses a special lethal threat to children.

A long-sought vaccine has never been developed, in part because the bacteria's virulence dissipates too fast in nature for an effective treatment, said Spacehab chief science officer Jeanne Becker.

In September 2006, a team led by Timothy Hammond of the Durham (North Carolina) Veterans Affairs Medical Center proved that salmonella' potency could be tripled in the micro-gravity of space, providing an opportunity to refine through genetic manipulation a strain that could be developed into a vaccine.

In the previous shuttle mission in March, the team was able to determine which of hundreds of strains could be used for a vaccine, and on the newest flight they will send it up, along with a supply of worms as test subjects, to see how it works.

"It's a unique environment" for testing the vaccine, Pickens said.

The experiment is the leading edge toward commercial research aboard the ISS. In 2005 the US Congress designated the US portion of the space station as a National Laboratory, meaning it had to open its facilities to private-sector research, development and, potentially, industrial processing.

"You need a facility where you can study the effect of microgravity" on biological systems, said John Uri, NASA deputy manager of the ISS payloads office.

"The international space station is a world class laboratory," said Louis Stodiek, director of Bioserve Space Technologies, a joint NASA-University of Colorado space research partnership.

With the greater private interest, said Stodiek, the research community is "actually seeing the development of products that benefit people here on Earth."

Although governmental institutions and university labs have made generous use of the ISS and shuttle since 2000, what has held up commercial research is the lack of consistent availability of space aboard the shuttle and other spacecraft.

Businesses paying 50,000 dollars per kilogram (2.2 pounds) for shuttle space don't want to wait in line or not be able to confirm the space, said Pickens.

He said Spacehab had payload relationships with Russia, the European Space Agency and other national and private rocket developers that, together with the US shuttle, are now making it more feasible to do.

"The competition will be fierce" for space, Uri said.

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NASA packs new toilet parts on shuttle for ISS
Washington (AFP) May 28, 2008
NASA stowed replacement parts aboard the Discovery shuttle Thursday to be sent up to the International Space station to fix its broken Russian toilet, the US space agency said.

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