Parkinson’s Experiment to Be Aboard Next Flight to International Space Station

Ana de Barros, PhD avatar

by Ana de Barros, PhD |

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Parkinson's space experiment

The United States is just four days away from sending a SpaceX rocket to the International Space Station whose cargo will include a Parkinson’s disease experiment.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials said the experiment will involve growing leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 protein crystals in the near-zero-gravity conditions of space.

Scientists hope the LRRK2 crystals will be larger and more regular in space, allowing them to see the protein’s structure for the first time. They have been unable to obtain an image of the protein on Earth that is high-resolution enough to display its structure. Until they know what the structure is, they will be unable to design a Parkinson’s therapy around the protein.

The Dragon spacecraft will carry hardware, supplies for the space station’s crew, and scientific research material. It will be SpaceX’s 12th mission to the orbiting laboratory.

Funding for the Parkinson’s experiment is coming from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space.

Marco Baptista, the Fox foundation’s director of Research and Grants, and Dr. Sebastian Mathea of the University of Oxford discussed the experiment during a media teleconference about the launch on Aug. 8.

Only about 10 percent of Parkinson’s cases stem from genetic mutations. Of those, LRRK2 mutations are the most common.

The percentage of LRRK2-linked Parkinson’s cases is much higher in some ethnic groups, however. They account for 40 percent of cases among North African Arab Berbers, for example, and 15 to 20 percent of cases among Ashkenazi Jews.

Parkinson’s researchers hope larger, better-formed protein crystals with fewer defects can yield the high-resolution views of LRRK2 they need.

A detailed view of the shape and form of LRRK2’s crystalline structure could be an important step toward understanding and accelerating development of LRRK2 inhibitor therapies that can prevent, slow, or stop the progression of Parkinson’s.

“The unique environment of the International Space Station untethers research from restrictions imposed by gravity,” Gregory H. Johnson, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, said in a press release. The organization is “glad to partner with The Michael J. Fox Foundation to explore the structure of this important piece of the Parkinson’s puzzle,” he said.

Launch is scheduled for Aug. 13 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Other scientists who participated in the teleconference included:

  • Joan Nichols of the University of Texas Medical Center’s Galveston National Laboratory. He discussed “The Effect of Microgravity on Stem Cell Mediated Recellularization (Lung Tissue).” The experiment will use the microgravity environment of space to test ways of growing lung tissue.
  • Michael Delp of Florida State University. His Rodent Research-9 project will look at physical changes in mice during a long space mission.
  • Wheeler Hardy of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command. He discussed NanoRacks-SMDC-Kestrel Eye,” a microsatellite that will carry an optical imaging system. The objective of the experiment is to determine whether microsatellites in low-Earth orbit can support critical operations.

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