As investigators continue to sift through pieces of the disintegrated Space Shuttle Columbia and the nation mourns the deaths of seven astronauts, scientists involved in about 80 experiments aboard the doomed craft also are mourning the loss of their experiments - although you might not know it from the mainstream media.
Rob Parker, president of ReGeneTech Inc., which had experiments on space shuttle flights in the 1990s but none on Columbia, was far from pleased by the lack of coverage.
"I heard Dan Rather talking about ketchup packaging and Kevlar vests, and then he had some guy come on and say, We have some incredible pictures of geology and geography,'" Parker said.
"There was no mention of the medical findings," neither those made in past space ventures nor those sought by the ill-fated latest mission, Parker said.
The seven Columbia crew members worked in two shifts during their 16 days in space.
"The whole flight was dedicated completely to science," noted David Clark, vice president of operations for NPS Pharmaceuticals Inc., which had an experiment aboard Columbia, whose multidisciplinary program involved 32 payloads with 59 distinct investigations. Eighteen percent of the module's 9,000 pounds were marketed to commercial users from all over the world, and the rest allocated to NASA research, some of it also commercially sponsored.
Aboard the craft were spiders, ants, silkworms and bees, plus rats and fish embryos, in which experiments were being done in areas such as immune function, kidney health, prostate cancer and protein crystal growth for drug design.
Parker, when contacted by BioWorld Financial Watch last week, was preparing a press release - not about ReGeneTech (which is focused on growing and multiplying adult stem cells derived from circulated blood and bone marrow), he said, but about the space program's importance to biotechnology.
"Just in the area of research we're working on, you're talking about Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, tissue regeneration," he said. "The impact and what technology is coming out of [experiments in space] are just huge. We're talking about something that's going to save hundreds of thousands of lives and improve the quality of millions of more lives."
ReGeneTech has used a proprietary protocol derived from a 1995 space shuttle flight known as STS-95, to expand and harvest adult stem cells under micro-gravity conditions. During that flight, former astronaut Sen. John Glenn cultured cells in a weightless environment, and ReGeneTech acquired rights to 13 patents involving cell expansion through NASA's Patent and Technology Transfer Program.
"The Bioreactor [used in that research] has continued to be developed by NASA, so we can recreate microgravity here on Earth," Parker said, adding that ReGeneTech is not product-based, so it would not need to rent the reactor for its purposes.
"We're never going to produce or build anything," he said. "We're an intellectual-property company. We've found that you can get more bang for the buck in sponsored research agreements. Our shareholders can get twice as much done."
The idea is to use the patient's own blood or bone marrow to extract, expand and harvest stems cells used for this protocol, eliminating not only rejection and negative effects on the immune system but avoiding the stigma of embryonic stem cells used the same way.
It's all being looked upon favorably in some quarters, Parker said, noting "three major pharmaceutical companies are looking at our technology" as the subject of potential deals.
NPS, for its part, had a Phase III osteoporosis drug called Preos undergoing tests aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, known as STS-107. NPS kept a lower profile in the sorrowful aftermath of the catastrophe.
A recombinant, full-length human parathyroid hormone, Preos is being evaluated for its ability to reduce fractures and build bone mineral density in women with osteoporosis. The trial is expected to finish dosing in September, with a new drug application filing targeted for 2004.
Meanwhile, space experiments with Preos (called OSTEO I) that began aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in October 1998 were continued on Columbia (called OSTEO II). The first experiment studied mineralization and the second examined gene regulation of bone cells in the presence of Preos, Clark said. Astronauts during long space flights have been shown to lose bone density similarly to osteoporosis patients, but 10 times faster than in people who have the advantage of Earth's gravity. No data were transmitted while Columbia was in space, Clark told BioWorld Financial Watch.
"We were waiting for everything to come back," he said. "The mini-lab was completely self-contained. We were going to allow [the experiment] to play itself out and then take apart the mini-lab."
Any data gained would have been "strictly supplemental information" to the NDA, he said. Losing the data "was sad, but completely insignificant compared to the loss of life," he added, noting that the experiment "can be reproduced in other places at other times."
Another company name appearing the NASA literature is ICOS Corp., whose Randolph Schweickart, manager of process design engineering, had an experiment on Columbia. The work, which wasn't done under ICOS auspices at all but was conducted by Schweickart as an independent consultant for NASA, was to measure the effects of microgravity on microbes.
It consisted of two studies: one with four species of bacteria and four species of fungi, and one with two species of fungi, using an automated microbial analysis system made by bioMerieux Vitek Inc., a St. Louis-based subsidiary of the French firm bioMerieux Pierre Fabre, and connected to a laptop computer.
"We had almost an identical unit at the Kennedy Space Center," Schweickart told BioWorld Financial Watch, so that comparisons could be made when the unit came back to Earth.
"We didn't have a very complex payload," he added. "It wasn't hooked up to send anything to the ground. We're hoping beyond hope that the [laptop computer memory] card survived. We may be able to recover data."
Others involved in the experiment, Schweickart said, also were testing some antibiotics but he didn't know which antibiotics.
"I was hoping to develop a tool for space flight research and clinical work on long-duration space flights," he said, adding that "we also would have gotten a couple of [scientific] papers out of it, from a fungal and bacterial perspective."
This was not to be, although a "slight possibility" exists that the card will be recovered among debris still being sorted by NASA, he said.
"We've seen some stuff come down relatively intact, and the drawings still exist," Schweickart said, but the catastrophe has set back the space program, for at least as long as it takes to figure out what went wrong with Columbia.
"My concern is, there's not another research flight planned for at least three years," he said.