The International Space Station (ISS) might be the perfect laboratory for developing antidotes to gases used in chemical warfare. Nerve agents such as sarin and VX are incredibly toxic, and yet, one way to combat them could come from crystals grown in microgravity.
According to NIH, the AChE enzyme — or enzyme acetylcholinesteras — helps muscles to relax after they have been “stimulated by the nervous system”. Nerve agents, however, come from a group of chemicals called Organophosphates (OPs), which block AChE activity. This leads to paralysis and death — sarin, for example, can kill within a couple of minutes.
In June, a project from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) called Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats (CounterACT) flew samples of human AChE enzyme aboard a SpaceX Dragon-11 capsule to the International Space Station. On Earth, it’s very difficult to “grow” this enzyme to a large enough size, but in microgravity, astronauts are currently trying to do just that — they’re literally growing crystals of the stuff for future analysis back on Earth.
“By taking advantage of the microgravity conditions of the International Space Station, we hope to grow better, more uniform crystals that we are unable to grow on Earth,” Dr Andrey Kovalevsky, a CounterACT scientist on the study, said in a statement.
Once the crystals are large enough, they will be ferried back to Earth for testing. The CounterACT teams hopes to produce an antidote that would break the OP-AChE bond quickly and essentially reverse the effects of a nerve agent. Ideally, this could be administered orally to the person affected by a nerve agent.
“Developing better countermeasures against these sorts of nerve agents is a major thrust of our overall program,” Dr David A. Jett, director of the CounterACT program, said in a statement. “This project is the kind of cutting-edge science we envisioned when we established the CounterACT program.”
Here’s hoping knowledge from the final frontier helps us counteract some of our mistakes here on Earth.