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Space shuttle protein experiments use British laser technology
Space shuttle protein experiments use British laser technologyKeywords: Lasers, Crystal growth
Fundamental research into the relatively new science of microgravity protein crystallization, conducted in space during NASA space shuttle missions, is now using advanced laser fiber delivery technology developed especially for the task by British company, Point Source (see Plate 4).
The company has played a significant role in developing a sophisticated laser light scattering system for the protein crystal growth experiments. It worked in close collaboration with CMC (Center for Macromolecular Crystallography) at the University of Alabama in Birmingham (UAB), one of the world's ground-breaking authorities on fundamental science for structural-based drugs, where the hardware for the new non-invasive sensing and control system was masterminded.
Plate 4 Microgravity protein crystallisation experiments on NASA space shuttle missions are utilising Point Source's laser technology
The experiments are conducted in space, as it has been discovered that the protein molecules used in the studies grow better under microgravity. Hence, the research has gone far beyond the familiar laboratory environment to the point where the university now runs the equivalent of a small aerospace company, designing and commissioning experiments as part of space shuttle payloads.
CMC is pioneering the technique known as dynamically controlled protein crystal growth (DCPCG), for studying protein crystal growth in both terrestrial and microgravity environments. The crystal growth process begins from supersaturated aqueous solutions where protein aggregation takes place, and this is followed by nucleation and subsequent crystal growth. The aim is to control supersaturation, and hence growth, by controlling solution concentration and temperature.
Point Source's contribution was to develop a stable laser diode light source and delivery system for the protein crystal growth system's laser light scattering system. The laser light scattering system detects protein molecule aggregation – essentially the first step in crystal growth, and this aggregation information is then fed back for dynamic control of crystal growth.
One of the university's most critical requirements was for the provision of a stable laser source and Point Source's laser diode solution provides outstanding output power stability of plus or minus 2 per cent over 24 hours. So far, the company has supplied 80 of its laser diodes for CMC's research program.
The new system replaces invasive manual/mechanical systems used by CMC in earlier space shuttle experiments for monitoring and controlling the protein solution supersaturation. The program has already greatly increased the understanding of protein crystal growth kinetics, which has led to a positive impact on the development and production of new drugs.
More detailed information on Point Source is available on the company's Web site at www.point-source.com