Elon Musk just launched a lethal pathogen into space
February 14, 2017 won’t be just any Valentine’s Day. (The launch date has been updated to February
On that day, SpaceX and Elon Musk will launch a lethal pathogen into space and deliver it to the International Space Station. The pathogen is called methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA, and causes very frequent and difficult-to-treat infections in hospitalized patients. One of the main clinical concerns is that this superbug is rapidly becoming resistant to most currently available antibiotics. Simply put, the pathogen is lethal and it’s going to take a grand effort to stop it. And that just might include space travel!
After launch and once MRSA is on board, it will be used in a fascinating study to examine the impact of near-zero gravity on gene expression and mutation patterns. The study is sponsored by NASA and CASIS and will be led by Anita Goel, M.D., Ph.D. Dr. Goel is the the Chairman and CEO of Nanobiosym, who was awarded the first XPRIZE in Healthcare for the Gene-RADAR technology—the world’s first mobile Tricorder device that enables real-time diagnosis of any disease with a genetic fingerprint at a cost at least 10 times cheaper than comparable diagnostic tests on the market today. Dr. Goel is a world-renowned expert and pioneer in the emerging field of nanobiophysics—a new science at the convergence of physics, nanotechnology and biomedicine. She has been expanding conventional theoretical physics frameworks and their mathematical machinery to describe non-equilibrium, open systems such as life and living systems that are strongly coupled with their environment. It’s her hypothesis that the near-zero gravity environment could result in accelerated mutation rates of MRSA. In other words, we can press the “fast forward” button and get a sneak peak at mutation patterns that have not yet occurred on earth.
Our work in micorgravity on International Space Station is both very practical and fundamental. We are pushing the envelope of personalized, precision medicine, enabling better prediction of drug resistance and hence smarter drugs. On a fundamental science level, I am keen to test my 20 year old hypothesis that the environment can deeply influence the information flow from both the genome and transcriptome.
—Anita Goel, M.D., Ph.D.
The implications for medicine and drug development are tremendous. Current antimicrobial therapies are often ineffective, and the emergence of resistance can only be observed in real time or retrospectively. So treating infections is often a “catch-up” scenario where pathogens can be elusive and have the upper hand. Goel and her team plan to leverage the unique environment in space to observe the activity of MRSA—from gene expression to mutations—to provide insights into what might happen back on earth. These data can be used to leapfrog drug development and find molecules that may be effective against strains that are predicted by this extraterrestrial microbiology lab.
In the cramped quarters of space and the value-conscious environment of both earth and space, technology and innovation are driving solutions that may offer real-world solutions for the astronaut and hospitalized patient alike. One thing’s for sure: The future is simply out of this world.
The crowds at Kennedy Space Center watched eagerly as the unmanned Falcon 9 rocket took flight with a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station. They got barely 10 seconds of viewing before clouds swallowed up the Falcon as it thundered skyward.
As an extra special treat, SpaceX landed its leftover booster back at Cape Canaveral several minutes after liftoff, a feat accomplished only twice before. Most of the company’s booster landings — rocket recycling at its finest — have used ocean platforms. As they did during the shuttle era, sonic booms heralded the booster’s return.
what could possibly go wrong?
“The pathogen is called methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA, and causes very frequent and difficult-to-treat infections in hospitalized patients.”
what if it escapes and infects the ISS?
“Dr. Goel is a world-renowned expert and pioneer in the emerging field of nanobiophysics—a new science at the convergence of physics, nanotechnology and biomedicine.”