Deadly bacteria that have spent time in space are already on Earth—but instead of killing humans, they might just save lives. Scientists are using bacteria cultivated on the International Space Station to help develop vaccines that experts say could revolutionize the medical field.
In 1998, researchers began studying how microbes such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and yeast behaved in space because NASA wanted to be able to keep astronauts safe in the closed space station environment. What they found, specifically with certain types of bacteria, was surprising, says Tara Ruttley, NASA's associate program scientist for the International Space Station.
"Bacteria can either respond in microgravity by sitting there and doing nothing, or they can become more aggressive and virulent," meaning they reproduce and evolve to cause disease more readily, she says. But that property of bacteria allows scientists to study exactly why certain bacteria, such as salmonella and MRSA, make people sick.
Scientists aren't exactly sure why certain bacteria become more virulent in space, but Ruttley says they believe it might be a stress response to being put into a low-gravity environment. But whatever the reason, studying bacteria that have spent time in space can make it easier for scientists to develop defenses.
"If you know the gene that makes bacteria more aggressive, you can build a defense against it," she says.
Last week, William Gerstenmaier, NASA's head of human explorations and operations, told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation that medical discoveries and vaccines developed on the International Space Station could help the United States "create a new economy based on space-based research."
"It's like when we went to Africa to look for new plant species to use for drugs," he said. "We can create a new industry with this."
Cheryl Nickerson and Roy Curtiss, professors at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute, are leading the charge. They are studying salmonella that has spent time in space, in an attempt to "turn it from foe to friend" by crippling the disease-causing genes and replacing them with ones that protect against Streptococcus pneumoniae, the bacteria that causes meningitis, pneumonia, and many other diseases.
In space, "we can unveil many of [salmonella's] responses that are happening here on earth but are masked by gravity," Nickerson says. "We've been able to identify missing info and use the new information to understand how [salmonella] causes disease … what you have now is a discovery platform that … can be used to create new vaccine technologies."
Nickerson and Curtiss also believe that a vaccine developed on Earth, when flown to space, could become more potent if it spends time in orbit. ASU's institute recently finished an experiment in which they kept a strain of their salmonella-based vaccine in space for six weeks and compared it with the same vaccine strain developed on Earth.
"It's too early to give any updates, but we have a lot of data we're very excitedly digging into as we speak," she says.
Although her initial experiments have been promising, Nickerson says people need to be wary of getting too far ahead of themselves—she says it'll likely be 8-10 years before her vaccine or any others developed using bacteria that spent time in space are ready for commercial sale.
"I've heard people promise a translational product, and that's not what a responsible scientist will do. I can't guarantee a whole lot of things," she says. "I believe, but cannot guarantee that we're going to have next-generation breakthroughs. I think it'll happen in infectious disease, cancer, aging, and visual disorders … but we have to be careful about making claims."
But many companies are already banking on the promise of developing medical breakthroughs on the International Space Station. Ruttley says NASA's research on the human body has already led to greater understanding about bone, muscle, and heart atrophy, vision impairments, and more.
Mike Gold, director of D.C. operations and business growth at Bigelow Aerospace, a company developing commercial spaceflight solutions, says that private industry's ability to go to space will speed up research.
"We're underestimating the impact of [microgravity research and development] on our economy," he told the Senate panel last week, adding that researchers at Johns Hopkins University are interested in developing cancer drugs in space and other companies are studying treatments for muscular dystrophy and osteoporosis based on space research.
"The companies and countries that have an expertise in microgravity manufacturing will be the economic giants of the future, and the first place we're going to see that is in pharmaceuticals," he told U.S. News in a separate interview. But he says researchers need to be able to send experiments to space more often before any treatments become a reality.
"Scientists need to be able to repeat an experiment a number of times," he says. "We can't fly an experiment once and then wait five years to fly it again. To become a reality, we need to allow researchers to fly their experiments numerous times to get results."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com