Space Crystals Provide Hope for Diabetes
PATIENTS MAY SOMEDAY REDUCE their insulin injections and lead more
normal lives because of new insights gained through innovative space
research in which the largest insulin crystals ever studied were
grown on the Space Shuttle. The results from a 1994 insulin crystal
growth experiment in space are leading to a new understanding of
diabetes, a hormone deficiency disease.
These results have the potential to significantly reduce expensive
treatments; the treatment of diabetes accounts for one-seventh of
the nation's health care costs. Sixteen million Americans suffer
from hormone deficiency diseases, such as diabetes, hepatic failure,
hemophilia, Parkinson's disease and Huntington disease.
"The space-grown insulin crystals have provided us new, never-before-seen
information," said Dr. G. David Smith, a scientist at Hauptman-Woodward
Medical Research Institute in Buffalo, New York. "As a result,
we now have a much more detailed picture of insulin."
Because of the increase in crystal size, Smith's team is able
to study in more detail the delicate balance of the insulin molecule.
Natural insulin molecules hold together and gradually release into
the human body. With some of the new and unexpected findings, researchers
may be able to improve how insulin is released from its inactive-stored
state to its active state. This could greatly improve the quality
of life of people on insulin therapy by cutting down on the number
of injections they have to take.
Hauptman-Woodward is partnering with the Center for Macromolecular
Crystallography (CMC), a NASA Commercial Space Center in Birmingham,
Alabama, managed by the Space Product Development Office within
the Microgravity Research Program Office at Marshall Space Flight
Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "We are doing crystal growth
experiments in the near weightlessness of space that really tell
the story of how insulin works and give us clues of how, in the
long run, to defeat diabetes," said Dr. Marianna M. Long, Associate
Director of CMC, which is located at the University of Alabama at
Insulin regulates the human body's blood sugar levels. In people
with diabetes, insulin is not produced in sufficient quantity, nor
regulated properly. This metabolic disorder impairs the body's ability
to use digested food for growth and energy.
As with many chemicals in the body, the three-dimensional structure
of insulin is extremely complex. The intricate, blueprint-like arrangement
of atoms within the insulin molecule determines how well the hormone
interacts within the body. When grown in an Earth-gravity environment,
insulin crystals do not grow as large or as ordered as researchers
desire, obscuring the blueprint of the insulin molecules.
The crystals are grown in space because the absence of gravity
allows large and perfect crystalline structures to form. Structure-based
drug design shortens development time over the classic trial-and-error
method of drug testing. This structural information is a powerful
research tool for drug design in the pharmaceutical, chemical and
For more information, contact Steve Lambing at the Marshall Space
Call: 256/544-2277, Fax: 256/544-8369, E-mail: Steven.J.Lambing@msfc.nasa.gov
Please mention you read about it in Innovation.
The largest insulin crystals ever studied
and grown in space have provided new, never-before-seen information
to help treat diabetes.
Space-grown insulin crystals reveal the blueprint
of the insulin molecules normally obscured if grown in an Earth-gravity