Medicines from Space

FDA Experiment Aboard Discovery

“I’m used to coaxing these cultures along,” says Principato, an immunologist with the center’s division of virulence assessment. “But to have something shot up at forces greater than any centrifuge spin, well, I just hoped and prayed that I’d get something back to work with.”

Her experiment was sent on the shuttle to find out how T-cells from mouse bone marrow respond to the bacteria staphylococcal enterotoxin B in zero gravity. On Earth, the first time T-cells meet staphylococcal enterotoxin B they proliferate. But scientists had questions about whether bacteria or their products activate T-cells in space. Principato’s experiment suggests they do.

Principato set up bone marrow feeder cultures and scaled down the experiment from “Earth size” culture dishes to a miniature size that would fit in the tiny wells allotted to her in the specially designed mini-lab.

Principato decided that, even though NASA didn’t require it, she wanted to set up the experiment at Cape Canaveral herself. She drove for 14 straight hours on April 3 to get to Cape Canaveral by the newly scheduled launch date. She set up her experiment on Sunday, and Monday was a whirlwind of press briefings and VIP tours. “I was running nonstop, but I never felt tired,” she says. She was in the viewing stands as the countdown began, shortly after 1 a.m. on April 6.

T minus 13. T minus 12. When the launch stopped at T minus 11, “my heart sank down into my feet,” says Principato. “Then panic ensued because my T-cells were locked up in the shuttle.”

It turned out that a bad computer circuit had indicated an unclosed fuel vent valve when the valve had, in fact, closed.

Principato was allowed to check her cells and found they were still alive. She gave them back to the shuttle technicians and crossed her fingers.

The launch was rescheduled for early morning April 8. When the countdown reached T minus 10, “there was a loud cheer,” she says.

Discovery lifted off at 1:29 a.m. “It was a glorious sight to see the shuttle go up,” she recalls. “It was a moment I’ll never forget.”

Later that morning, she was able to listen in on the control room’s radio as the astronauts worked. She wanted to be sure that they had “thrown the switch” that would turn on the machinery and mix the staphylococcal enterotoxin B with the T-cells.

“You think you’ve come up with the perfect answer to all problems and then have to hope that a fuse doesn’t blow or something doesn’t overheat.”

John E. Vanderveen, Ph.D., director of FDA’s Office of Plant and Dairy Foods and Beverages (which contains the division in which Principato works), says that, “It’s always important for government agencies to cooperate, especially when resources are limited. The unique techniques that were employed may be valuable to us in the future.”

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