By Kim Polacek, APR, CPRC - April 08, 2022
It’s a once in a lifetime experience that has been years in the making. Today, Moffitt Cancer Center researchers Drs. Derek Duckett and Patsy McDonald sent an experiment to the International Space Station as part of Axiom Space’s Ax-1 mission. What makes this rocket launch different is that it is the first private astronaut mission to the space station, further paving the way for civilian space travel. It’s also what makes Duckett and McDonald’s experiment so important.
“Space travel exposes the body to microgravity, ionizing radiation and other physical stressors that can cause DNA damage. This can lead to genomic instability that can have profound consequences on human health, including cancer,” said McDonald, an associate member of Moffitt’s Cancer Physiology Department. “Our work has shown that if the beta-arrestin1 gene is deleted, cells fare better against stressors and DNA damage is limited. An important next step is to test if deleting the beta-arrestin1 gene from cells can protect against the harsh environment encountered during space flight.”
This experiment has its roots at Duke University, where McDonald and Duckett trained in the labs of their mentors, Drs. Robert Lefkowitz and Paul Modrich. Both are Nobel laureates for their pioneering work in cell surface receptor signaling, in which beta-arrestin1 plays an important role, and DNA repair, respectively.
“Our recent work in collaboration with Dr. Lefkowitz’s lab highlights the significant role beta-arrestin1 plays in chronic stress-induced DNA damage. This is a crucial part of the experiment we sent to the International Space Station,” said McDonald.
In 2016, McDonald and Duckett formed Cadw Therapeutics. Hailing from Wales, McDonald explained Cadw, pronounced “ca-doo,” is a Welsh word meaning to preserve and protect. “The word explains exactly what we are trying to achieve, which is to preserve and protect cells from the genomic damage that occurs as a consequence of chronic stress-related disorders,” she said.
Having their own company allowed them to apply for funding from Space Florida, which they received in 2016 and again in 2019 through the organization’s Florida-Israel Innovation Partnership Program. The program connected them with the Israeli company SpacePharma, which has provided the unique lab-on-a-chip that will be utilized for the experiment.
Dr. Liz Bailey, Cadw’s principal research scientist who also works at Moffitt, has been instrumental in the chip design and implementation of the experiment. She explained that the chip has two separate compartments each with three chambers where cells will be loaded; three chambers will have normal cells and the other three will have cells where the beta-arrestin1 gene has been deleted. “Replication is important,” said Bailey, “as it reduces variability in experimental results.” The chip is then housed in a miniaturized lab system that is loaded onto the rocket and serves as a fully automated incubator keeping the cells alive while on the space station. The experiment can then be monitored remotely on Earth by the Cadw and SpacePharma team.
“The experiment will be up at the International Space Station lab for 10 days. All the cells will be exposed to the same stressors. When the experiment returns to Earth and we get it back to the lab, we will be able to validate our theory that deleting beta-arrestin1 helps protect cells from damage,” said Duckett, chair of Moffitt’s Drug Discovery Department.
McDonald and Duckett say the goal is then to develop a preventive intervention that could be administered before someone travels to space.
Ax-1 is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday.