Md. companies aid NASA biology study


March 21, 1992|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Staff Writer

If you think getting old is tough, imagine the aches an astronaut would feel after landing on Mars. His bones would be as brittle as those of a hunched woman with osteoporosis, his heart weak, his muscles so atrophied he might not be able to walk.

The lack of gravity is so hard on the human body that long-term space travel will be nearly impossible until a way to counteract its effects is found.

So when the space shuttle Atlantis blasts off Monday, it will carry an experiment designed by the U.S. Army in collaboration with two Maryland biotechnology companies that will attempt to answer some of the questions about why the body deteriorates in space.

The two companies, BioWhittaker Inc. of Walkersville in Frederick County, and Cellco Inc. of Gaithersburg, aren't getting much money for their contributions. But they are among the first companies in the nation to have supplied materials and expertise for a life science experiment in space.

"These companies have provided us with critical pieces of technology that we could not have produced," said Col. William P. Wiesmann, director of the Division of Surgery at the Walter Reed Institute of Medical Research, which is overseeing the experiment.

BioWhittaker, a publicly traded company that makes cell cultures and diagnostic tests, is not being paid for its contribution. Cellco, which is privately held, declined to comment on what it will earn. But Army officials said the company, which is developing systems to help researchers find treatments for AIDS and cancer, will make about $15,000.

The payback will come, the companies say, by having their names associated with the project and through the value of the research.

The research could be applied to life on Earth by leading to the development of new drugs to treat diseases such as osteoporosis, muscular dystrophy and immune system failure, Army officials said. It could also give doctors insights, for example, into how to treat soldiers who, under stress of battle, undergo physiological changes that are similar to changes experienced by an astronaut in space.

Scientists will try to find out whether the lack of gravity has a profound effect on the basic life form -- the cell.

Some researchers have theorized that the loss of muscle and calcium -- the building block of bones -- occurs in space because an astronaut's body does not have to work as hard to move. But other scientists have speculated the cause of the deterioration might lie within the cell itself, said Dr. Wiesmann.

Because the structure and nature of human cells have developed in gravity over millions of years, the lack of a gravitational pull could change a cell's ability to sense the environment, divide and send signals to other cells, he said.

To test particular cells, "we have developed a facsimile of the human body," said Bill Lynn, the chief executive of Cellco, which is providing the system to do the experiment.

The facsimile consists of 20 cigar-sized tubes that are filled with tiny artificial capillaries. Human cells are attached to the outside of the capillaries and oxygen and a nutrient culture is pumped through each of the tubes.

The idea is to fool the heart, bone and lymph cells into believing they are in a human body and get them to grow and react to the lack of gravity. The researchers can then study the cells' deterioration and examine what happens after time in space.

Cellco has provided NASA with the artificial capillary system, one of its primary products developed for commercial laboratory use.

BioWhittaker was chosen to provide the nutrient because the company has the only product on the market that is FDA approved for sterile use, said Patrick P. Chang, product manager of BioWhittaker, which spun off in 1991 from its parent, Whittaker Inc.

The challenge for the company was to design plastic bags to hold the liquid before and after it is pumped through the capillaries. The bags had to be flexible, sterile and strong enough to withstand the rigors of space.

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