Environment & Science

Research in space could shed light on Huntington's Disease

An Expedition 27 crew member used a fish-eye lens to capture this image of a portion of the International Space Station.
An Expedition 27 crew member used a fish-eye lens to capture this image of a portion of the International Space Station.
Photo by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center via Flickr Creative Commons

Listen to story

00:57
Download this story 0.0MB

Early Monday morning, astronauts aboard the International Space Station fired up an experiment designed by Caltech researchers.

If all goes well, the project will give scientists a better understanding of Huntington's disease, a brain disorder that impairs a person's ability to walk, move and speak.

Related: Gene linked to Alzheimer's poses a special threat to women

In the zero-gravity experiment, scientists will grow a protein associated with disorder, CalTech's Gwen Owens said. 

She said researchers have known for the past 15 years that the disorder is linked to an abnormal version of a protein called "huntingtin."

"Since then we haven't figured out what it looks like and that is a very important part in making treatments for the disease," she said.

Normally researchers grow  research proteins in a crystal form to get a better understanding of how they work.

But "huntingtins" won't form a crystal shape in Earth's gravity, Owens said. Instead it clumps together, making it hard to study.

“But there is good evidence that proteins without gravity... are able to actually form these crystals.”

The experiment arrived at the Space Station on Sunday as part of a resupply mission operated by Hawthorne-based SpaceX.

It also marks the first time Caltech has sent a study up to the ISS. It's set to return to Earth in September.

This research is being done in collaboration with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, which oversees U.S. research on the ISS.