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

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

“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: