Blast-off for researching bugs in space

Mon, Aug 6, 2012, 01:00

Dr Tony Ricco is working with Nasa putting tiny satellites into space to see how bugs develop in that atmosphere – seen as critical in eventual space travel, writes CLAIRE O’CONNELL

WHAT DO medical devices have in common with satellites that orbit the Earth? On the face of it, perhaps not much. But Dr Tony Ricco’s work spans both.

As chief technologist in the area of small payloads and instrumentation at the Nasa Ames Research Center (on leave from Stanford University), he sends living microbes into space in shoebox-sized satellites to see how the bugs grow and react to pharmaceutical drugs. And as an adjunct professor at Dublin City University he works with the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute on technology to better measure the stickiness of blood platelets and detect pathogens and disease in patients here on terra firma.

Those twin tracks of medical devices and space both require insight into the science at the interface between biology and chemistry and engineering, and between devices and physics integration, he explains when we meet at DCU. “That is very much the commonality between my Nasa work and my work with the BDI.”

Ricco started out as a chemist and moved into the field of chemical microsensors before joining California-based company Aclara Biosciences, where he focused on microfluidic technologies for use in applications such as DNA sequencing and detecting pathogens. The company was gearing up for success. “We did an IPO in 2001, and on the day we did that it was the largest biotech IPO that had ever been done on the Nasdaq,” recalls Ricco.

But the environment changed and the company had to alter its plans.

“We had staked the company on being able to make very large numbers of consumable plastic devices that did some fairly sophisticated things,” says Ricco. “But suddenly the pharma industry started shutting down a lot of its interest in developing next-generation technologies, which this really was.”

So Ricco followed a long-held ambition and set up a consulting business. “I had always been interested in having a consulting business to solve problems at interfaces between chemistry and biology and engineering,” he recalls. That led him to become involved with Nasa and he also spent time in Ireland through a Science Foundation Ireland ETS Walton Visitor Award in 2004, helping to develop what is now the BDI.

What kind of work does he do? Let’s start with space: we know that spending time away from Earth can physically affect the human body, but watching what happens to other living organisms or organic molecules in space can also be instructive. Sometimes they can help answer questions about whether life could exist elsewhere in the cosmos. And if we want to plan for long space missions with humans on board, we’ll need to know about biology in space – not just for human health but also for practical considerations like growing food.

So Ricco has been involved in projects to send living organisms into orbit to measure how the environment affects them. In 2006, the GeneSAT experiment launched an 11-pound (5kg) small satellite containing E.coli bacteria into orbit at about 450km above the Earth. The bugs were housed in an incubator that shielded them somewhat from the radiation in space but allowed the scientists to look at the effects of microgravity. The E.coli had been engineered to switch on a glowing protein that the researchers could track as the bugs grew in microfluidic wells, and the growth data were sent to Earth where the researchers could analyse them. Despite its relatively tiny size, the satellite packed plenty in.

Consisting of three cubes, two held the biological payload, explains Ricco. “Those had a containment inside them that holds one atmosphere and a normal ambient humidity and has in a microfluidic device for growing E.coli as well as pumps, nutrients, the optical system, some electronics and a thermal system, all in this little can with less than a litre of volume inside,” he says. The third cube held the power systems – a set of lithium ion batteries like a laptop – and a pair of radios .”

The bacteria seemed to do well in their new home, as Ricco describes. “GeneSAT showed we could take a bioengineered organism, E.coli in this case, that had a fused reporter that creates the green fluorescent protein and we could, in a number of microfluidic wells, have cultures of E.coli that would grow,” he says. “We got growth curves in space for the E.coli when they were reconstituted and they grew happily enough, though a bit slower.”

Another small satellite, PharmaSAT, looked for the effects of microgravity on anti-fungal drugs using the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae as a test organism. The experiments showed that the drug seemed to work as on Earth, but again things were slightly slowed down in space, explains Ricco.

More recently, he has been involved in experiments to look at how the hardy bacterial spores of Bacillus subtilis fare in space, and missions are planned for roundworms and bacteria that thrive in extreme environments.

Back on Earth, Ricco has also been working with researchers in Dublin and Galway to help improve the detection of health problems, and again his focus is looking at interfaces. One BDI project, with Prof Dermot Kenny from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, is looking to assess the function of a type of blood cell called a platelet, which can play a role in cardiovascular disease and bleeding disorders.

Using diagnostic microfluidic assay devices the researchers are looking to develop more effective ways of measuring how activated the platelets are in a small sample of blood from a patient.

And in other BDI projects, this time with NUI Galway, Ricco is working on potentially more effective ways to diagnose meningitis and even cancer.

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