University Relations

News Bureau (662) 325-3442

Contact: Bob Ratliff

STARKVILLE, Miss.–How on Earth can a future space shuttle mission to the International Space Station lead to a better treatment for diseases?

Chemistry professor Bill Wilson of Mississippi State University and colleagues he is working with at NASA have discovered that gravity may be the key.

Their efforts are part of what is known as the Dynamically Controlled Protein Crystal Growth mission, a $13 million National Aeronautics and Space Administration project. Other research sponsors include the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and the Center for Biophysical Science and Engineering at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Wilson, an MSU Giles Distinguished Professor, was the first researcher to develop a method for predicting the conditions in which protein crystals will grow efficiently. In tribute, the process, known as the Wilson Crystallization Slot, bears his name.

He also will be the first Mississippi State faculty member to have an experiment fly aboard the space station.

He said a space shuttle flight, possibly next summer, will transport proteins associated with certain diseases–sickle cell anemia, influenza, and diabetes, among others–to the just-opened space station. In the gravity-free environment, the crystals will be grown to produce accurate three-dimensional structures of the proteins.

Wilson said the absence of gravity generally produces better three-dimensional crystal growth. “Earth gravity has an adverse influence on crystal growth,” he explained. “Because there is almost no gravity in space, you get a better protein crystal structure.”

Wilson, whose research efforts have been supported continuously by NASA since 1991, said drug companies can use structures determined from the crystal analysis for what is known as structure-based drug design. “That basically means the protein crystal is giving the drug companies a 3-D model of what the disease protein looks like so they can design their drugs to combat that disease.”

Mississippi State is playing an integral part in the research aspects of the flight mission. The university’s newly renovated Hand Chemical Laboratory will enable Wilson’s research group to better study the proteins.

“Scientists traditionally have used trial and error to get these protein crystals,” he said. “Now people all over the world are beginning to use the method we discovered to render better crystals in a more efficient manner.”

MSU also is involved in constructing the actual flight hardware for growing the crystals.

“The crystallization process will be controlled automatically and totally self-contained through hardware MSU and UAB are collaborating to build,” Wilson said. “The astronauts will be busy doing housekeeping of sorts on the space station and won’t have the time or the expertise to deal with the crystals. With our hardware, the crystals will take care of themselves.”

The first NASA flight with the crystals tentatively is scheduled for June.

“People always ask me if I am going to make the flight,” Wilson said with a smile. “I tell them I don’t even like to ride the teapots at Disney World!”


For additional comments, contact Dr. Wilson at (662) 325-3584 or