Sep. 1, 1997 A collaborative effort by NASA, university researchers and industry has resulted in the development of a new X-ray generator to speed the collection of protein structure information from crystals grown aboard the International Space Station.
Researchers grow protein crystals in space because the crystals typically grow larger and with greater purity in the near-weightless environment of low-Earth orbit, providing researchers better data for structure-based drug design.
The X-ray device is a critical component of the X-ray Crystallography Facility, a payload planned for the International Space Station, being designed and developed by the University of Alabama in Birmingham's Center for Macromolecular Crystallography.
Using the X-ray generator in the commercially developed X-ray Crystallography Facility will alleviate the need to return space- grown crystals to Earth for further analysis. By measuring and mapping the crystal's structure in space, researchers will avoid exposing the delicate crystals to the rigors of space travel, and important research data will be available to scientists much faster.
The X-ray generator, developed by Bede Scientific Instruments Ltd. in Durham, Great Britain, is a compact, lightweight, low- power X-ray device about the size of a small suitcase and is capable of generating high-brightness X-ray sources for protein crystal growth research. The generator focuses X-ray beams approximately one-half millimeter in diameter on the targeted protein crystal, allowing researchers to analyze and model the three-dimensional structure of protein molecules in detail, previously only possible with sources using sixty times the power.
Dr. Larry DeLucas, Director of the Center for Macromolecular Crystallography and a former Space Shuttle payload specialist, stated that having an X-ray facility aboard the Space Station will improve our understanding of effects of low-Earth orbit on crystal growth and contribute to accelerated drug development.
"Providing a three-dimensional structure is what we're after," said DeLucas. "Once we determine a protein structure, it provides a wealth of information regarding the mechanism of the protein and, in many cases, this information is used to design new and more effective pharmaceuticals. This new X-ray facility will help to speed the process by allowing scientists to use the Space Station to grow the crystals and collect the X-ray data in space."
Current X-ray crystallography facilities are about the size of an automobile. The new X-ray facility being developed for the Space Station will fit into a single space station rack -- about the size of a household refrigerator -- and will produce the same intensity of X-rays.
Bede Ltd. built the new X-ray instrument in collaboration with the Center for Macromolecular Crystallography, which is under contract to NASA's Microgravity Research Program's Space Product Development Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL.
A unique aspect of the X-ray crystallography facility is its commercial development approach. The funding for further development of this facility will be provided by non-U.S. Government sources, thereby reducing the cost for taxpayers.
DeLucas said, "I can't begin to tell you how much we are looking forward to continuing our work aboard the new Space Station. This brings us one step closer to making the facility a reality. With the X-ray facility onboard, we'll have a new and powerful potential tool to address many public health problems."
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