A group of postgraduate students belonging to the Technical University of Catalonia (UPC) and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) were chosen by the European Space Agency (ESA) to design and carry out a scientific experiment under microgravity conditions. They will be monitoring how interactions between drugs and cells differ under these conditions. The flights will take place this coming fall.
Sergi Vaquer, with a doctorate in Medicine from UAB, and Arnau Rabadán, a postgraduate in Industrial Engineering at UPC, together with three more teams from Norway, Germany and England, will be participating in the ESA programme "Fly your Thesis!". The programme is an opportunity for doctoral and master's degree students from around Europe to design, build and perform a scientific experiment in microgravity conditions. Sixteen research groups from different European universities participated in the final phase of selection where they presented their projects at the ESA European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany this past December.
The UAB and UPC researchers will take part this fall in a series of parabolic flights on board an Airbus A300 ZERO-G aircraft, which is used by many astronauts as part of their training. The flights will consist in accelerating the aircraft to climb with a high angle and reducing its thrust to a minimum during 20 seconds while the plane falls freely along a parabolic trajectory. During these 20 seconds the aircraft's cabin pressure is similar to those found in near zero gravity conditions. Each flight will repeat this trajectory up to 30 times to give researchers - in the three flights they will be taking - an opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time experimenting in microgravity.
The experiment, entitled ABCtr MicroG and coordinated by Sergi Vaquer, will investigate the behaviour of particular biological agents - ABC transporters - involved in the assimilation of drugs by the human body. To do this, the two researchers have developed a specific protocol which with almost exact precision measures the activity of these molecules during each 20 second microgravity phase which will be repeated 30 times during the flight. The technical part of the experiment will be directed by Arnau Rabadán and consists of designing a mechanism which mixes biomedical fluid with ABC transporters inside a syringe in order to activate a chemical reaction. All of this must be done at the same temperature as the human body, at 37ºC. After the 20 second free fall the system will introduce a liquid into the syringe to freeze the mixture and prevent it from being affected by gravity until the moment of the next parabola.
This mechanism will be managed by a control system which marks the exact conditions of the experiment and the amount of liquids to be injected. The control system will include active elements, such as the engine that moves the syringes, and elements of supervision, such as the sensors that control the temperature of the syringe while the mixing is taking place.
The engineering, manufacturing and preparation phases will be monitored by Felip Fenollosa, professor of the UPC Department of Mechanical Engineering and assistant director of the CIM Foundation. The CIM Foundation is a leading technological centre belonging to UPC which focuses on the field of production technologies. It will be in charge of designing and building the experiment's mechanism. The first stage in developing this mechanism began in 2008 under Rosa Pàmies, professor in Mechanical Engineering at UPC.
The results of this experiment will be useful in improving medical treatments for astronauts, and will help scientists better understand the assimilation mechanisms of drugs in general and the mechanisms of action of transporters in diseases such as cancer or AIDS.
Sergi Vaquer has worked as support doctor at the Medical Crew Support Office of the ESA European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany and is currently working as resident doctor at the UAB-affiliated Parc Taulí Hospital in Sabadell and as researcher at the Municipal Institute for Medical Research (IMIM) at Hospital del Mar, Barcelon a. Arnau Rabadán studies Industrial Engineering (specialising in Mechanics) at the UPC University School of Industrial Engineering (EUETIB) and will base his thesis on the scientific equipment used in this experiment. He is currently working under a research grant at CIM Foundation.
The other three projects selected by ESA are: Complex, presented by four students from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, in Trondheim, Norway. They will study the flow birefringence of a solution of clay particles in salty water, allowing them to have a deeper understanding of the self-organisation of those small particles. The Dust Side of the Force, presented by a team of four students from the Institute of Planetology at University of Münster, Germany. The experiment is about the greenhouse and thermophoretic effect, which can lift particles off the ground in low gravity conditions. This effect is thought to be important in planet formation and the formation of dust storms on Mars. And AstEx, presented by two British students from the Open University in the United Kingdom and the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis, France. Their experiment will investigate the behaviour of granular material under shear stress, with the possibility of using their results in the design of future asteroid sample return missions.
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