On 20 September, scientists will send proteins of the hepatitis C virus to the International Space Station to produce crystals under microgravity conditions. The experiment could help find new ways to treat disease, according to the researchers, who won the space shuttle ticket for the two proteins in a research competition.
“The hepatitis C virus is a major problem in our home nation of Egypt,” explains Akram Amin Abdellatif in a press release from Technische Universität München (TUM), where he studies ‘Earth-oriented space science and technology’. “We developed this project to learn more about the virus and find its weaknesses.” The graduate student, who also works at the German Aerospace Center, established the project ‘Egypt Against Hepatitis C Virus (EGAHEP)’ together with Hanaa Gaber, a doctoral student of virology at TUM.
Egypt has one of the highest prevalence rates of hepatitis C infections in the world. According to a 2008 estimate by the Egyptian ministry of health, around 15 per cent of 15 to 59-year-olds are infected. The virus attacks the liver and can cause huge damage to the body, including cancer and organ failure.
Superior space-made protein crystals
The EGAHEP project is one of eight to be chosen for a space odyssey by the International Space Station (ISS) Research Competition. Among more than 600 submissions, EGAHEP was the only project to be chosen from outside the US. As their prize, the scientists will see the ISS crew conduct experiments for the project on the space station free of charge.
The experiments involve crystallising two proteins of the hepatitis C virus. For other proteins, it has been shown that crystals produced in space were superior to those grown on Earth, where gravity can negatively influence the crystallisation. Scientists can then use special X-ray techniques to decode the molecular structure of the proteins from these crystals.
“Identifying the precise structures could help us to find new points of attack for medications in the future,” explains Ulrike Protzer, who heads TUM’s Institute of Virology.
Synchronised crystallisation on Earth and in space
The researchers selected two proteins from a subgroup of hepatitis C virus that is very predominant in Egypt. The first protein ensures that the genetic material of the virus multiplies in infected cells. The second protein works as a pair of molecular scissors, cutting a chain of proteins into individual virus proteins as the virus replicates.
The isolated and purified proteins will be packed in special transport cases called NanoLabs for their journey on the space shuttle, set to lift off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on 20 September. The proteins will return to Earth four weeks later – in crystal form.
At the same time, both proteins will be crystallised in a laboratory on Earth for comparison. “We hope that the project will be successful and that the crystals produced in space will represent a giant leap forward,” says Gaber, who will be in Florida for the launch.
Adapted from article by Vera Siegler, TUM Research News