The National Laboratory Pathfinder project has been watching the growth of cells in space to see how gravity changes the virulence of disease. In the two latest experiments, conducted in the last several years, scientists have brought Salmonella (the most common cause of food poisoning in the world) and MRSA (an extremely difficult to treat bacteria that causes infection) to the space station where they let it propagate.
In the Salmonella study, researchers found that the nasty bug gets even more nasty when it’s allowed to grow up in zero-g. Because the environment was in some ways similar to that of our intestines, scientists believe this more virulent strain is one that could possibly develop here on earth. However, bringing the new nasty bug back to the surface and experimenting on it revealed it could be controlled. A company called Astrogenix has since begun developing a vaccine for Salmonella (and identified potential possibilities for a MRSA vaccine). A group a the University of Arizona has also used the discovery to create an orally-administered Salmonella vaccine currently undergoing clinical trials. Even better, the type of vaccine created in Arizona is also useful for fighting a variety of other pathogens that attack humans. Meaning other vaccines could be around the corner.
Astrogenix and NASA recently signed an agreement to continue studying the pathogens that attack us for the next several years, with plans to send 28 missions to the ISS through 2016. NASA is hoping that other commercial R&D programs will recognize the benefits of drug development in space and follow suit.