An experiment designed by Florida Institute of Technology students and researchers that could hold hope for Alzheimer’s patients has arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a SpaceX capsule.
The SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule docked with the ISS on Jan. 12, two days after lifting off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Florida’s Space Coast. In addition to equipment for more than 250 science investigations, the unmanned mission is delivering food and other supplies to the space station’s six-member crew, according to a NASA news release.
The Florida Tech experiment seeks to shed light on how amyloid proteins self-assemble into long, thin strands. Accumulations of these protein fibers have been found in people with Alzheimer’s, although it’s unclear whether they are a symptom or cause of the degenerative brain disease, according to a university statement.
In the long run, understanding how proteins organize might “lead to an understanding of the cause of Alzheimer’s disease, and maybe even eventually a cure or a treatment,” Florida Tech Professor Sam Durrance, who flew on two space shuttle missions, said in an interview with NASA.
The experiment could benefit research into several neurodegenerative diseases, in addition to Alzheimer’s.
The microgravity environment of the International Space Station provides research opportunities that aren’t available on Earth. For example, in a lab setting gravity would cause the fibers to settle or sink, affecting their interaction with each other. Weightlessness takes care of this problem.
Florida Tech’s experiment, titled “Self-Assembly in Biology and the Origin of Life,” was selected as part of a competition by Space Florida and NanoRacks, a company that provides support and equipment for non-NASA research on the International Space Station.
Florida Tech’s history is intricately linked to the Space Age. The Melbourne, Florida-based university was founded in 1958 as Brevard Engineering College to provide educational opportunities to engineers, scientists, technicians and other professionals working for NASA at nearby Cape Canaveral.
The Dragon capsule, which was carried into space by a Falcon 9 rocket, is SpaceX’s fifth resupply mission to the ISS. In addition to equipment for Florida Tech’s research into Alzheimer’s, the capsule also delivered the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System, or CATS, which will be connected to the exterior of the station, according to NASA.
The CATS will evaluate the clouds and tiny particles in Earth’s atmosphere, which could provide scientists with information about climate change and weather forecasting.
The Dragon will remain connected to the station for about a month while the ISS crew unloads and then repacks the capsule with completed experiments, along with equipment and supplies that are no longer needed. It will descend into the Pacific Ocean within a few hours of disconnecting from the station, where a ship will retrieve it.