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Dec. 5, 2001

Ann Hutchison

NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

(Phone: 650/604-3039 or 650/604-9000)

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Release: 01-96AR


Advanced technology development projects that may hold the key to detecting cancer while it affects only a few cells are getting underway at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.

NASA Ames has awarded grants totaling $1.286 million to support 11 peer-reviewed, in-house research projects. The grants are the first step in implementing a NASA/National Cancer Institute (NCI) partnership known as Fundamental Technologies for the Development of Biomolecular Sensors. Both agencies expect program research to lead to important benefits. Ames is leading NASA’s efforts in this new endeavor.

"The development of cutting-edge sensors, technologies and instruments should enable advances in biological research and human space exploration," noted John Hines, manager of the NASA Biomolecular Physics and Chemistry Program, which administers the NASA element of the collaboration. The goal of the program is to develop new molecular signatures and ways to identify molecular indications of cancer and other diseases.

"This intramural research program establishes a foundation for supporting the NASA/NCI collaboration," Hines said. "We look forward to its swift execution and the validation of emerging biomolecular technologies for future NASA missions."

Research in biomolecular systems is expected to yield breakthrough technologies for minimally invasive health monitoring, early disease detection, and targeted delivery of medication -- benefits of interest to both organizations.

Hines noted that there is considerable overlap in the needs of NASA and NCI for biomolecular sensors. NASA needs sensors for the diagnosis and treatment of injury, illness and emerging diseases in astronauts during long-duration space flights; for monitoring and control of life support systems; and for the remote sensing of signatures of life on distant planetary bodies. NCI needs technologies that will enable detection of the earliest stages of cancer and provide rapid and specific treatment.

The grants will support NASA research in biosensor development, high-resolution sampling of biological specimens, a new ultra-sensitive technique for detecting organisms and their biomarkers, and detection of microorganisms on sterilized surfaces.

Awardees come from the life sciences, information technology, astrobiology and aerospace fields at Ames. The winning intramural proposals were selected from 41 received from Ames and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., which received five additional grants. Dr. Darrell Jan of JPL will serve as deputy program manager.

The development of microscopic explorers that can travel through the human body in search of disease would allow NASA to monitor astronaut health in space, where medical test capabilities and communication with Earth may be limited. New technologies also could revolutionize the speed and effectiveness of basic health care on Earth through early detection, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

The ability to identify changes such as protein expression or gene expression that will develop into cancer at a later date may enable scientists to develop therapies to attack these cells before the disease spreads. "With molecular technologies, we may be able to understand the molecular signatures within a cell using the fusion of biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technology," Hines said. Ames is a leader in all three fields of research.

Currently, cancer can be detected only after it has developed into a tumor or has affected a large number of cells. Chemotherapy or radiation treatment can do significant damage to healthy cells far-removed from the cancer. If scientists can detect the disease before it affects a larger area, or even before the pre-cancerous cells become malignant, they may be able to design treatments that target only the affected cells, eliminating potential damage to other areas of the body.

Ames will focus on six key areas in molecular and cellular biology and associated technologies. Biomolecular sensors may some day be able to kill tumor cells or provide targeted delivery of medication. Molecular imaging may help scientists understand how genes are expressed and how they control cells. Developments in signal amplification could make monitoring and measurement of target molecules easier. Biosignatures -- identification of signatures of life — offer the possibility of distinguishing cancerous cells from healthy cells. Information processing (bioinformatics) will use pattern recognition and modeling of biological behavior and processes to assess physiological conditions. Finally, molecular-based sensors and instrumentation systems will provide an invaluable aid to meeting NASA and NCI objectives.

NASA is supporting the program with $10 million over 5 years. NCI’s contribution is $10 million or more. In addition to the intramural efforts, the agencies have issued a joint extramural solicitation. Each organization will fund proposals of interest to it, with no exchange of funds between the organizations. The two agencies will jointly monitor the technical progress of all funded activities, and conduct joint reviews.

NASA’s participation in the collaboration is supported by the agency’s Office of Biological and Physical Research, which promotes basic and applied research to support human exploration of space and to take advantage of the space environment as a laboratory. More information is available at:

"Our goal is to really make this an applied program and to facilitate the identification and incubation of these advanced technologies, and to transfer them efficiently to NASA and NCI programs," Hines said. More information about this program is available at:


Click here to see the list of NASA Ames Grant Awardees




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