Pitt Pharmacy Students To Blast Antibiotic Resistance Experiment Into Space

Jan 28, 2019

A research project from students at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Pharmacy is headed to the International Space Station. The team hopes to find out how microgravity impacts antibiotic resistance, which may shed light on the issue on earth.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station will perform the mechanics of the project, which is comprised of a test tube-style container split into three compartments. One contains E. coli and an inoculum, another has an antibiotic and growth agent, and the last holds a preservative that will effectively freeze the experiment so the students can study the results.

Anu Patel, one of the pharmacy students leading the project, said it's important to study this issue because astronauts need to stay healthy and safe in space.

"Astronauts already have weakened immune systems," Patel said. "Plus it being a high-touch, enclosed environment, the possibility of infection spreading is really high."

This project aims to help NASA figure out why antibiotics don't work as well in space as they do on earth, which has been a mystery to the agency according to pharmacy student Mohamed Kashkoush.

"Previous scientists have shown that bacteria not only grow faster and in larger numbers in space, but antibiotics, for some unknown reason, don't really work as well on these microorganisms," Kashkoush said.

The students hope what they learn from the project can be applied to antibiotic resistance research on earth. Kashkoush said the strongest antibiotics no longer work against E. coli, which is troubling for physicians who have fewer options to treat infected patients.

The students chose their strain of E. coli because the entire genome has been sequenced. The team is running an identical experiment on earth, the results of which will be compared to the one from space.

This project is part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, an initiative of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. The program has sent 14 missions to the ISS, with hundreds of projects organized by students from elementary school to graduate school. Pitt's project is the first a pharmacy school and a university in Pennsylvania.

Team member David Katz said more pharmacy students should participate in opportunities for research aboard the ISS.

"I believe everyone with the knowledge that they gained in pharmacy school has a spot in space," he said.

The project will launch in June from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

WESA receives funding from the University of Pittsburgh.