Montana State University

MSU team to send experiments to International Space Station

September 17, 2012 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service


MSU researcher Sheila Nielsen-Preiss and Millard McQuaid, who recently completed MSU's post-baccalaureate pre-medical certificate program, load bioreactors for an experiment that will be conducted on the International Space Station. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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When the NASA shuttle program was decommissioned in 2011, Sheila Nielsen-Preiss thought her opportunity to conduct experiments in space was over. But this fall, with the help of NASA and a private space company, Nielsen-Preiss and a team of students from Montana State University plan to send research experiments to the International Space Station.

Their experiments will focus on how the pathogenic yeast Candida albicans responds to near weightlessness. What they learn could have a range of implications, from helping keep astronauts safe to having better tools to fight the yeast on Earth, according to Nielsen-Preiss, who is director of the MSU Health Professions Advising Office and has a research appointment through the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases in the MSU College of Agriculture.

"We're working with a pathogenic organism that causes infection, so if we can better identify how infection occurs, as well as barricades to infection, it will be advantageous," Nielsen-Preiss said.

Candida albicans is yeast that commonly lives in the mouth, gastrointestinal tract, and other areas of the human body. According to Nielsen-Preiss, a healthy immune system can usually ward off infection by the opportunistic pathogen. However, the yeast can cause localized -- and relatively easily treated -- infections of the mouth, nails or vagina in otherwise healthy individuals. More serious are the systemic, and often lethal, infections that occur in patients whose immune systems have been compromised.

"Although astronauts are healthy individuals, exposure to spaceflight affects their immune system and may reduce their ability to respond to infection," Nielsen-Preiss said.

She added that her team has performed ground-based studies that simulated near weightlessness. The studies indicate that Candida albicans may become more pathogenic in those types of environments, which would further increase the risk of infection to astronauts.

To learn more about the yeast, Nielsen-Preiss and the team of students will send a series of experiments into space via an unmanned private capsule, Dragon. Dragon is part of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, the first privately held company to send cargo to the International Space Station.

The launch is tentatively set for Oct. 5 from the Kennedy Space Station in Florida, and the team has been working for months to prepare for it.

It began last fall, when Nielsen-Preiss received an invitation from NASA Ames, a research center located in Moffett Field, Calif., to submit a proposal for her work. The proposal was due in early December, and just a little more than a month later, Nielsen-Preiss learned that it had been accepted.

With the acceptance, the project received $135,000 in funding from NASA. It has also received communications and logistical support from NASA and BioServe Space Technologies, a center affiliated with the Aerospace Engineering and Sciences Department at the University of Colorado Boulder that supports space research. In addition, bioreactor hardware for the project is provided by NASA and BioServe.

After her proposal was accepted, Nielsen-Preiss's first step was to finalize the experiment design and build a team, which includes five MSU students and recent graduates. Then, during the summer months, the team staged several test runs of the experiments, which will be conducted in nearly 300 glass tubes. Each tube is about six inches long and is individually constructed during the experiment preparation to contain three compartments. One compartment will contain medium, or a sugar and protein mix to provide an environment where the yeast can grow, another will contain the yeast, and the third will contain a preservative to stop the yeast from growing or changing once the experiment is over.

The team will fly to Florida in late September to prepare to launch the experiments. Then, they'll watch the launch from Cape Canaveral. (In the event of a delayed launch due to weather, the team has several contingency plans for the experiment, Nielsen-Preiss said.)

The experiments will return to Earth via Dragon, which is scheduled for a parachute-aided water landing into the Pacific Ocean. Once there, a ship will bring the experiments to the California coast, and then they will return to Montana for post-flight analysis.

The research has the potential to provide important insights into Candida albicans, Nielsen-Preiss said.

In addition to providing information to help keep astronauts safe, learning more about how the yeast respond to their environment could also provide information that will be helpful in treating yeast infections and other ailments caused by the pathogen.

"Low-shear is a feature of both microgravity and some locations within the human body to which yeast may be responding," Nielsen-Preiss said. "Understanding the response in one environment may help us predict the response in the other.

"We can put in barricades to infection, such as effective antimicrobial agents, if we understand how Candida is responding to the environment," Nielsen-Preiss added.

The five MSU students who are working on the project have been an invaluable part of the research team, Nielsen-Preiss said. At the same time, she believes the entire team is gaining wonderful experience.

"The students have really stepped up to the plate, with minimum oversight," she said. "I tell them something once, and then they have to go with it. They learn from their mistakes and are really working well as a team. This is a new experience for all of us."

Participating in the project has helped MSU student James McKinney learn a variety of things, from basic research techniques to skills in working effectively with a group, he said.

"It has also engaged me on a personal level, because I have to think for myself and come up with different ways of doing the experiments."

McKinney, from Austin, Texas, is an MSU undergraduate student who is majoring in cell biology and neuroscience. He said it's been a challenging project, particularly because it necessitates working odd hours. (The team often has to be in the lab at 10 p.m. and again at 6 a.m.) Still, McKinney said it's been worth it.

"I feel I am working toward something...in a scientific field, and applying what I have been learning in all of my classes up until now."

In addition to McKinney, Jess Brown and Millard McQuaid, who recently completed the post-baccalaureate pre-medical certificate program at MSU, and undergraduates Kela Bergren and Wendy Gans are on Nielsen-Preiss's team.

The opportunity for the students is clearly unique, Nielsen-Preiss said.

"How many people can say they've worked on a flight experiment? This is a great opportunity for our students."

Contact: Sheila Nielsen-Preiss, (406) 994-1670 or sheila.nielsenpreiss@montana.edu