Corporate Banner
Satellite Banner
Scientific Communities
Become a Member | Sign in
Home>News>This Article

Unlocking a Mystery of Human Disease . . . in Space

Published: Saturday, April 26, 2014
Last Updated: Saturday, April 26, 2014
Bookmark and Share
Researchers analyze crystals of full-length protein with X-ray crystallography to determine huntingtin's structure.

An experiment just launched into orbit by a team of Caltech researchers could be an important step toward understanding a devastating neurodegenerative disease.

Huntington's disease is a grim diagnosis. A hereditary disorder with debilitating physical and cognitive symptoms, the disease usually robs adult patients of their ability to walk, balance, and speak. More than 15 years ago, researchers revealed the disorder's likely cause-an abnormal version of the protein huntingtin; however, the mutant protein's mechanism is poorly understood, and the disease remains untreatable.

Now, a new project led by Pamela Bjorkman, Max Delbrück Professor of Biology, will investigate whether the huntingtin protein can form crystals in microgravity aboard the International Space Station (ISS)-crystals that are crucial for understanding the molecular structure of the protein. The experiment was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Friday, April 18 aboard the SpaceX CRS-3 cargo resupply mission to the ISS. On Sunday, April 20 the station's robotic arm captured the mission's payload, which included the proteins for Bjorkman's experiment-which is the first Caltech experiment to take place aboard the ISS.

In the experiment, the researchers hope to grow a crystal of the huntingtin protein-the crystal would be an organized, lattice like arrangement of the protein's molecules-which is needed to determine the molecular structure of the protein. However, molecules of the huntingtin protein tend to aggregate, or clump together, in Earth's gravity. And this disordered arrangement makes it incredibly hard to parse the protein's structure, says Gwen Owens, a graduate student in Bjorkman's lab and a researcher who helped design the study.

"We need crystals for X-ray crystallography, the technique we use to study the protein, in which we shoot an X-ray through the protein crystal and analyze the organized pattern of radiation that scatters off of it," Owens says. "That pattern is what we depend on to identify the location of every carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur atom within the protein; if we shoot an X-ray beam at a clumped, aggregate protein-like huntingtin often is-we can't get any data from it," she says.

Researchers have previously studied small fragments of crystallized huntingtin, but because of its large size and propensity to clumping, no one has ever successfully grown a crystal of the full-length protein large enough to analyze with X-ray crystallography. To understand what the protein does-and how defects in it lead to the symptoms of Huntington's disease-the researchers need to study the full-length protein.

Looking for a solution to this problem, Owens was inspired by a few previous studies of protein formation on space shuttles and the ISS-studies suggesting that proteins can form crystals more readily in a condition of near-weightlessness called microgravity. "The previous studies looked at much simpler proteins, but we thought we could make a pretty good case that huntingtin would be an excellent candidate to study on the ISS," Owens says.

They proposed such an experiment to the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which manages U.S. research on the ISS, and it was accepted, becoming part of the first Advancing Research Knowledge, or ARK1, mission.

Because Owens and Bjorkman cannot travel with their proteins, and staff and resources are limited aboard the ISS, the crystal will be grown with a Handheld High-Density Protein Crystal Growth device-an apparatus that will allow astronauts to initiate growth of normal and mutant huntingtin protein crystals from a solution of protein molecules with just the flip of a switch.

As the crystals grow larger over a period of several months, samples will come back to Earth via the SpaceX CRS-4 return mission. The results of the experiment are scheduled to drop into the ocean just off the coast of Southern California-along with the rest of the return cargo-sometime this fall. At that point, Owens will finally be able to analyze the proteins.

"Our ideal result would be to have large crystals of the normal and mutant huntingtin proteins right away-on the first try," she says. After analyzing crystals of the full-length protein with X-ray crystallography, the researchers could finally determine huntingtin's structure-information that will be crucial to developing treatments for Huntington's disease.

Owens, a joint MD/PhD student at Caltech and UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, has also had the opportunity to work with Huntington's disease patients in the clinic, adding a human connection to her experiment in the sky. "The patients and families I have met who are affected by Huntington's disease are excited to see something big like this. It's inspiring for them-and hopefully it will inspire new research, too."

Further Information

Join For Free

Access to this exclusive content is for Technology Networks Premium members only.

Join Technology Networks Premium for free access to:

  • Exclusive articles
  • Presentations from international conferences
  • Over 3,500+ scientific posters on ePosters
  • More Than 5,200+ scientific videos on LabTube
  • 35 community eNewsletters

Sign In

Forgotten your details? Click Here
If you are not a member you can join here

*Please note: By logging into you agree to accept the use of cookies. To find out more about the cookies we use and how to delete them, see our privacy policy.

Related Content

Rerouting Cancer
Caltech researchers show how cancer drug resistance could potentially be overcome.
Friday, April 15, 2016
Counting Molecules with an Ordinary Cell Phone
Diagnostic health care is often restricted in areas with limited resources, because the procedures required to detect many of the molecular markers that can diagnose diseases are too complex or expensive to be used outside of a central laboratory.
Thursday, February 25, 2016
Cells Rhythmically Regulate Their Genes
Study led by researchers at Caltech shows that pulsing can allow two proteins to interact with each other in a rhythmic fashion that allows them to control genes.
Friday, October 23, 2015
Flowing Electrons Help Ocean Microbes Gulp Methane
Recent work at Caltech has shown that microbes work together to consume large amounts of methane released from vents on the ocean floor by using electrons to share energy over long distances.
Monday, October 05, 2015
Bar-Coding Technique Opens Up Studies Within Single Cells
Scientists have developed a method for simultaneously imaging and identifying dozens of molecules within individual cells.
Tuesday, September 15, 2015
An Antibody That Can Attack HIV in New Ways
Proteins called broadly neutralizing antibodies (bNAbs) are a promising key to the prevention of infection by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Making Nanowires from Protein and DNA
The ability to custom design biological materials such as protein and DNA opens up technological possibilities that were unimaginable just a few decades ago.
Monday, September 07, 2015
How an RNA Gene Silences a Whole Chromosome
Caltech study shows how Xist silences X-chromosomes.
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Caltech Chemical Engineers Devise New Way to Split Water
This nontoxic, noncorrosive, "low-temperature" method makes use of wasted heat.
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Scientific News
Unravelling the Role of Key Genes and DNA Methylation in Blood Cell Malignancies
Researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center have demonstrated the role of Dnmt3a in safeguarding normal haematopoiesis.
Salford Lung Study - The First Real World Clinical Trial
In this podcast, we learn about the Salford Lung Study and its potential to revolutionize the way we assess new drugs and treatments around the world.
Point of Care Diagnostics - A Cautious Revolution
Advances in molecular biology, coupled with the miniaturization and improved sensitivity of assays and devices in general, have enabled a new wave of point-of-care (POC) or “bedside” diagnostics.
Nanomedicine Aims to Improve HIV Drug Therapies
New research aims to improve the administration and availability of drug therapies to HIV patients using nanotechnology.
Tumor Markers Reveal Lethality Of Bladder Cancers
Researchers found that detection of certain tumor cells in early stage cancers helps identify high-risk cancers.
Gene Editing Corrects Sickle Cell Mutation
Researchers demonstrate a potential pathway to developing gene-editing treatments for sickle cell disease.
Driving Mosquito Evolution to Fight Malaria
Researchers propose insect repellent in conjunction with insecticides to extend current insecticide lifetime.
Lab-on-a-Chip to Help Detect Cancer
In this podcast, we speak to Gustavo Stolovitsky to learn about his career and the work he is doing at IBM Research.
ALS Study Reveals Role of RNA-Binding Proteins
The findings are a significant step forward in validating RNA-based therapy as a treatment for ALS.
Observing Direct Inheritance of Gene-Silencing RNA
Research has allowed for the observation of double-stranded RNA molecule being passed from parent to offspring in roundworms.
Scroll Up
Scroll Down
Skyscraper Banner

Skyscraper Banner
Go to LabTube
Go to eposters
Access to the latest scientific news
Exclusive articles
Upload and share your posters on ePosters
Latest presentations and webinars
View a library of 1,800+ scientific and medical posters
3,500+ scientific and medical posters
A library of 2,500+ scientific videos on LabTube
5,200+ scientific videos