To have the opportunity to do the research that I do day-to-day here as well as the luxury of being able to do research on the International Space Station makes me feel incredibly lucky."
“On Earth, you can control every variable – other than gravity.”
This little nugget of intergalactic wisdom about why conducting medical research aboard the ISS is so exciting is from Tara Ruttley, an associate program scientist for the International Space Station (ISS), during a recent event at Merck. As she explained, it’s mainly because no one really knows what will happen in zero gravity — our usual laws of physics just don’t apply in outer space. Zero gravity research allows scientists and researchers to study the underlying dynamics of why things work the way they do.
Merck scientist Paul Reichert knows this first hand. He’s been working with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to conduct his own set of zero gravity experiments for Merck aboard the ISS since 1993. Paul, who has carried out 13 experiments, including two onboard the ISS, has one main specialty: growing crystals in space.
About ten years ago, Paul discovered conditions that crystallize a protein called “alpha interferon.” We’ll let him explain: “Proteins grown in space behave differently because they are not impacted by the force of gravity, so they tend to grow bigger and purer, allowing us to gain new insights into their 3-D structures,” he notes. “Each time I’ve sent an experiment to space, I’ve learned how to grow crystals better here on Earth.”
By making and studying these crystals, Paul and his team can figure out ways to improve the storage of otherwise structurally-fragile medicines as well as how to devise better methods of drug delivery.
“Currently, a lot of medicines are delivered via an IV in a hospital setting, usually over several hours,” he explains. What Paul and his team are trying to figure out is how to transform these medicines into something that can be given as a single, quick injection in a doctor’s office — something someone can receive on their lunch break, whereas before they would have to use a whole day in order to get the medicine they need to take.
So, what does the future hold for this frontier-busting scientist? Hopefully, more experiments and even more breakthroughs. “Merck allows me, every day I come to work, to push the frontiers of science,” he notes. “I’m like a kid in a candy shop here.”
A candy shop that just happens to sometimes be in outer space.