ASU scientist to study germs in space

March 12, 2008

By hammersmith

[Source: Ken Alltucker, The Arizona Republic] – Never has an aggressive strain of salmonella made somebody feel so good. Arizona State University scientist Cheryl Nickerson gained national attention for a study last fall that found that salmonella germs became more deadly in space. Now, with today’s scheduled launch of space shuttle Endeavor, the ASU-led team will study space germs and potential ways to protect astronauts from illness. Nickerson, a member of ASU Biodesign Institute’s Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology, said she is excited because it’s unusual to get a chance to duplicate a study in space.

“We’re getting a rare and unique opportunity to independently validate the results of our (earlier) biological experiment,” said Nickerson, who is in Florida preparing for the shuttle launch.

Nickerson will seek to confirm her earlier experiment that concluded some germs become more deadly in space. Last fall, Nickerson’s team found that salmonella typhimurium in space was three times as likely to trigger disease compared to bacteria samples grown on Earth. The experiment involved placing one dozen coffee-can sized containers aboard the space shuttle in 2006. The follow-up experiment, conducted at NASA’s request, will seek to duplicate the earlier study. It will also examine whether different mineral concentrations have the potential to prevent or lessen sickness in astronauts. Earlier studies have shown that space flight weakens the immune system. So the combination of stronger germs and a weaker immune system means that astronauts face greater risk of illness. “We think we have identified a novel way to turn down or turn off increased disease-causing potential of salmonella in flight,” Nickerson said. She said the long-term goal of studying salmonella, a leading cause of food-borne illness, is to develop a vaccine that could benefit astronauts, the elderly or others with weakened immune systems. She said such a vaccine could be years away, but the ASU team believes it has developed a protein-based switch that may be a useful target.

Other members of the ASU research team include James Wilson, Laura Quick, Richard Davis, Emily Richter, Aurelie Crabbe and Shameema Sarker. Others will conduct experiments testing bacteria, too.

Scientists from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and Montana State University will test three types of bacteria linked to illnesses such as pneumonia, meningitis and swimmer’s ear. Nickerson said NASA informed her two months ago that she would be able to participate in the Endeavor mission. Unlike past experiments that required grants, NASA is paying for costs associated with the mission, she added.