Canadian Commander Chris Hadfield wasn’t just spending his time in space communing with an Earth-bound Captain Kirk and learning to play guitar in microgravity.
The astronaut, who last month returned to terra firma after five months in orbit at the International Space Station, gained international fame with his extracurricular projects, which also included a music-video remake of “Space Oddity” that got a retweet from David Bowie himself. But alongside the merriment, Hadfield and his crew did conduct serious scientific research, including a project for NanoRacks, a Houston startup that enables customers to send custom research payloads to the space station.
Today, NanoRacks announced that its experiments from the mission resulted in the first commercial-scale protein crystal growth in space. “We self-funded this experiment,” says Jeffrey Manber, NanoRacks’ CEO. “We grew over 100 crystals, which were 100 percent larger over previous crystals grown in microgravity.”
For NanoRacks, the experiment proved its hunch that using terrestrial research hardware, as opposed to more expensive customized hardware created specifically for projects in space, would result in useful science. This helps to open up new markets for the company, Manber says.
Essentially, NanoRacks sells to researchers transportation and access to lab space at the ISS. This particular project was undertaken to see how many of these protein crystals they could grow in microgravity and also to examine their quality.
Going forward, Manber says NanoRacks can help companies interested in this research to launch their experiments into space. For such crystallization projects, the cost would be $10,000 per crystal card, each of which holds one protein.
Scientists study protein crystals in order to develop better or new drugs to fight diseases. These sorts of crystals can be grown on earth but thermal convection and sedimentation—both byproducts of gravity—create imperfections in the crystals as they grow. These imperfections in the crystal lattice make earth-grown protein crystals less useful in creating drugs. Since thermal convection and sedimentation don’t exist in microgravity, it is a better environment to create finer crystals.
The protein crystal project was done in conjunction with Emerald Bio, a Bedford, MA, company that provides X-ray crystallization supplies, and Carl Carruthers, principal investigator at Methodist Hospital Research Institute in Houston. The crystals were grown over a 60-day period and returned from space via the Russian Soyuz capsule last month.
Until now, researchers had to build custom hardware for growing protein crystals in space. NanoRacks worked with Emerald Bio to create standard hardware for such projects.
Dorit Donoviel, deputy chief scientist at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, says that NanoRacks’ experiment shows that “the big breakthrough is that making protein crystals in space is now scalable, which should drive costs down and increase access.”
NanoRacks flies to space 4 to 6 times a year—for a total of 91 payloads since its founding in 2009—and docks at the space station via an agreement with NASA. Its clients include the Fisher Institute of Israel, the National Institutes of Health, and the DLR German Space Agency. The company employs 12 people and has revenue of about $4 million, Manber says. He declined to provide details of his investors except to say that that the company has recently concluded a Series A round of fundraising, which included investors from both Austin and Houston.
Manber was previously managing director of Energia, a U.S. office of Russia’s NPO Energia, and president of MirCorp, a company that signed up commercial customers to use Mir until the Russian government’s decision in 2001 to deorbit the space station. In the 1980s, he established the first commercial space investment fund for Shearson Lehman Brothers in New York and also set up the U.S. Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commerce in Washington.
“Researchers can use microgravity as a new tool,” Manber says.