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STS-107 Experiments Survive
 
Two technicians gather samplesCommercial and student experiment containers found in East Texas during Columbia recovery efforts were recently released to researchers who believe the salvaged experiments will produce valuable science.

The scientists first were surprised to learn that several experiment containers survived Columbia's fiery breakup and 207,000-foot fall Feb. 1.

Now they are thrilled to know that the initial harvesting of experiment samples from the containers at Kennedy Space Center showed most samples to be in good to excellent condition.

After the recovered experiments are analyzed at various centers they will boost the percentage of data recovered from STS-107 experiments. About 30 percent of the potential research output of the mission was downlinked to scientists while Columbia was on orbit.

"We honor the astronauts by making use of the research they sacrificed their lives for," said STS-107 NASA Mission Scientist John Charles, who is based at Johnson Space Center (JSC). "I have to think that's what they would have wanted us to do."

While all the experiments from the recovered containers have the potential to provide important data to scientists, two could lead to life-saving treatments for cancer and severe lung infections.

One of those studies successfully produced microscopic drug capsules that are prototype microcapsules for five drug delivery systems that directly attack tumors or deep infections. Microcapsules, which are slightly larger than white blood cells, resemble tiny water-filled balloons when viewed under a microscope.

The microcapsules are designed to be injected through catheters directly to problem sites. The method allows patients to avoid severe side effects of traditional chemotherapy including nausea, hair loss and fatigue.

Several other microcapsule delivery systems developed in part through data provided by previous Shuttle research missions have been patented and are undergoing trials. The systems were jointly developed by NASA-JSC, the Institute for Research and Instrumentation Technology Associates, Inc. (ITA)

Dr. Morrison performs experiment"When it comes to microencapsulation technology, space is our best classroom. Through observing how capsules form with various drug formulations in space we continue to learn how to manufacture capsules here on Earth," said Principal Investigator Dr. Dennis Morrison of NASA-JSC.

The other cancer-related experiment was an attempt to develop large, detailed Urokinase crystals in the microgravity environment of space. Urokinase is the enzyme that causes cancer to spread. Scientists are seeking to discover its structure so they can design a drug to hinder the enzyme's destructive effects.

Although crystals were found in the recovered samples, researchers will not know until the crystals are analyzed in an X-ray diffraction microscope whether they are the right type to help break Urokinase's code.

"We got lucky. The unit could just as well have burned up on re-entry," John Cassanto, president of ITA, which manufactured the experiment container and integrated experiments into it.

ITA was a co-sponsor of both the microencapsulization and Urokinase experiments. Cassanto and Morrison are two of the co-principal investigators on the enzyme study.

Microcapsules created on orbit"We won't know for about a month and a half whether we've got good crystals, but we do know the microencapsulization experiment was a hundred percent successful," Cassanto said. "We are dedicating all the science from the payload to the STS-107 astronauts."

Other researchers, educators and students were thankful to have their experiments available for analysis. Barry Perlman, a teacher at Pembroke Pines Charter Middle School in Florida, said his students were inspired by the recovery of their tin crystal experiment. It was the third crystal-growing experiment flown by Perlman and his students.

"Through working with the Shuttle experiments my students come to place higher value their science and math courses. They see facts and figures translated into real-life science," Perlmann said. "Because of the accident, they likely never will forget this project and will have even greater respect for the work of the astronauts."

Guy Ethridge, KSC project manager for moss growth experiments recovered from Biological Research in Canisters (BRIC) containers, said the experiment samples were somewhat altered by effects of the Columbia accident. That was also the case for another BRIC project recovered, a roundworm study.

"While the original intent of the experiments was fundamental research, they have become astrobiology experiments. Good science will come out of it," Ethridge said.

In addition to KSC and JSC, Marshall Space Flight Center and Ames Research Center participated in experiments that survived the Columbia accident.
 
 
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center