What Is It Like to Send Your Research to Space?

Interview With Pharmacy Students from the University of Pittsburgh Whose Project Is Headed to the ISS

students standing together

Pictured (from left to right): David Scott Katz, Anu Patel, and Mohamed Adam Kashkoush at the University of Pittsburgh. (Photo courtesy of the Jan Shaw.)

New Trajectories In Antibiotic Resistance:
A Blog Series Following 3 Pharmacy Students & Their Research On the ISS

In space, there is increasing evidence that human immunities are compromised due to microgravity, sleep deprivation, isolation, and microbial contamination1. In addition, researchers have also found Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria treated with antibiotics in a microgravity environment rapidly develops antibiotic resistance2.

With this in mind, a better understanding of both human and microbial physiology in microgravity environments is needed for us to consider long- term human space flight as viable. In addition, understanding the physiology of microbes in space can be beneficial in developing new strategies in developing antibiotics here on Earth.

Through the Student Spaceflight Experiments program (SSEP), three pharmacy students from the University of Pittsburgh, are conducting a space experiment on the International Space Station (ISS) that can help further our understanding of what is going on.

Meet The Team

Pictured (from left to right): Anu Patel, David Scott Katz, and Mohamed Adam Kashkoush at the University of Pittsburgh. (Photo courtesy of the Jan Shaw.)

Name: Anu Patel
Qualifications: B.S. in Pharmaceutical Sciences, incoming third-year pharmacy student
Occupation: Pharmacy Student
Areas of Research: Antibiotic resistance, pharmacogenomics, pharmacokinetics
Hobbies: Running, reading, sketching, going out to eat, dancing

Name:David Scott Katz
Qualifications: BS in Pharmaceutical Sciences
Occupation: Patient Care Specialist at Cresco Labs & Pharmacy Intern at CVS Health
Areas of Research: Medical Cannabis, Nanotechnology, Pharmaceutical Industry
Hobbies: Rock Climbing, fishing, yoga, Game of Thrones

Name: Mohamed Adam Kashkoush
Qualifications: B.S. Industrial Engineering and ongoing Pharm.D. Class of 2021 (University of Pittsburgh for both)
Occupations: 1) Business Development Associate at Peptilogics 2) Pharmacy Intern at UPMC Shadyside Hospital
Areas of Research: Antimicrobial resistance, opioid epidemic, and advanced materials (antibacterial and photovoltaic Surfaces)
Hobbies: Soccer, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, reading, movies

Team Interview

New Trajectories In Antibiotic Resistance blog series follows three University of Pittsburgh pharmacy students who, through the SSEP program, are sending a project to the International Space Station in an effort to shed light on the role of bacterial behavior and antibiotic resistance in microgravity. Follow their journey from beginning to end, starting with an interview with Mohamed Adam Kashkoush (MAK), David Katz (DK), and Anu Patel (AP) about their research as they get ready for launch.

What is the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program? Why is the overall goal of the program so important?

MAK: SSEP is a competitive program that hosts local competitions in various participating communities across the nation, where each participant designs an experiment proposal to send an experiment to the International Space Station. If the proposal wins, judged first by local judges then by a national core, the students get to actually conduct the experiment by sending it along with instructions to active astronauts on the ISS. The main goal is to inspire us to pursue STEM careers, especially those in the rapidly accelerating private space industry.

"Having the freedom to think and a lack of judgment and fear as a youth inspires passion, independent thinking, and innovation, which will all better oneself and society as a whole." - Anu Patel

Why is the SSEP initiative to inspire the next generation of America’s scientists and engineers so important?

MAK: Luckily, we live in a country where there is no shortage of inspirational visionaries and trailblazers. I am proud to live in a country where a child can look at modern-day space explorers like Elon Musk, Mae Jemison, or Peter Diamandis and say “I will be like them one day!”. However, inspiration is not enough, because we also live in a country with no shortage of distractions. If there are no avenues to bring a child’s inspiration to a creative problem-solving setting with real-world implications, the inspiration will eventually fade as the child begins to see outer space (or any difficult aspiration) as an unattainable goal. SSEP is important because it convinces us that anything is truly possible.

AP: I think that it is important for students to recognize that they can create an impact at any age; they don’t have to wait for another year, another degree, or another job to carry out an idea. Having the freedom to think and a lack of judgment and fear as a youth inspires passion, independent thinking, and innovation, which will all better oneself and society as a whole.

What inspired you all to submit a project to the SSEP Program?

MAK: I was always intrigued by outer space, but it was coincidence that specifically inspired me to submit a project to SSEP. I had just finished reading the great Carl Sagan’s “A Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” when the opportunity was announced. I was already quite busy and really didn’t have time to take on a major project, but I distinctly remember being unable to stop thinking about Carl Sagan and his passion for science and outer space. In the end, I couldn’t say no to the opportunity and be at peace with myself. So, thank you, Dr. Sagan.

"With the prevalence of antimicrobial resistance as a growing public health issue on Earth, we cannot forget that its effect may expand outside this planet." - Anu Patel

What was your proposed project to the SSEP Program? Can you provide details on the experiment, its justification and overall importance?

MAK: Antimicrobial resistance is a growing public health issue that has a global and even a universal effect. With the concurrently increasing frequency, duration, and overall ambition of space exploration, it is important to approach the treatment of infections during spaceflight with confidence and precision. A closed, high-touch environment aboard the ISS and other space vessels, combined with increased bacterial virulence and human immunosuppression during spaceflight further highlight the importance of research into antimicrobial therapies under microgravity conditions. A troubling example of this infectious risk is highlighted from a 96-day spaceflight where a Russian cosmonaut became ill with a methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus infection after another cosmonaut was treated with ampicillin. Prior experiments have shown that bacteria undergo transcriptomic changes that result in accelerated growth and increased resistance when challenged with antibiotics in space. Building upon these principles, this proposal aims to determine the transcriptomic changes that occur in Escherichia coli with exposure to ciprofloxacin in microgravity. By analyzing the bacterial transcriptome, this project aims to further understand the mechanisms of microgravity-associated antimicrobial resistance. Specifically, this experiment will explore whether or not survival responses previously shown during spaceflight are antibiotic-specific or broadly attributable to other antibiotics. This will provide data towards constructing evidence-based guidelines for the treatment of infectious disease during spaceflight, as well as provide insight into mechanisms of antimicrobial resistance for drug development on Earth. In doing so, we can make space and Earth safer for all.

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AP: We proposed sending E. coli and ciprofloxacin, a widely used antibiotic on earth and space, into microgravity and determining the response of the E. coli to the antibiotic. Our design looks like this: one tube will be divided into three compartments, each separated by a clamp, which when unclamped, will release the contents of two adjacent compartments and will allow them to mix. The first compartment will hold the E. coli, the second will hold the ciprofloxacin infused in growth media (this is due to lack of space for a fourth compartment to hold only the media), and the third compartment will hold DNA/RNA Shield, a product that will essentially “freeze” the experiment being conducted. First, the clamp holding the first and second compartments will be released, mixing the bacteria and antibiotic. After about 3 days of the interaction between bacteria and antibiotic, the DNA/RNA Shield will be released, which will preserve the state of the interaction as the project makes its descend back to earth for analysis. We will use transcriptomic analysis (done by the Institute of Precision Medicine at Pitt) to see which genes were upregulated and downregulated in the bacteria after its interaction with the antibiotic and analyze the results in the context of the functions and implications of the genes. Since we are concomitantly performing the same experiment on earth, we can compare the genomes of the earth and space samples for differences. This is possible because the genome of E. coli has been fully sequenced. Through online research, we found a similar experiment that was conducted at the University of Colorado, which tested gentamicin (an antibiotic of a different mechanism of action than ciprofloxacin) and E. coli that had been done in the past, which inspired the creation of our project. We hope to compare our results to these to see if bacterial behavior may be antibiotic-specific or not. Overall, we hope to contribute some information to the growing knowledge base on bacterial behavior and antibiotic resistance in space, as well as, perhaps create some implications here on earth.

Why is it important that your experiment is carried out on the International Space Station specifically? 

DK: The importance of the health, specifically the ability to fight a bacterial infection, of all the people venturing into outer space relies on our experiment. An antigravity simulator cannot simulate the true effects outer space has and the International Space Station is the best example of a true microgravity environment.

AP: With the prevalence of antimicrobial resistance as a growing public health issue on Earth, we cannot forget that its effect may expand outside this planet. We are in a time of highly advanced innovation and progress, and researchers everywhere are taking advantage of the resources that we may have in space. With increased space exploration, it is important that we study the effects of spaceflight on a more scarcely-studied population: astronauts. We hope to gain some knowledge on how bacteria behave differently in space and how that may impact the development of antimicrobial resistance. In addition, how can we possibly use this information to identify ways in which antimicrobial resistance on earth may be manipulated?

"The importance of the health, specifically the ability to fight a bacterial infection, of all the people venturing into outer space relies on our experiment."" - David Katz

When will your project be launching into space and how long will the project last in space? 

MAK: The project is planned for launch on July 8th, 2019 and is expected to return late July or early August, although both the launch and return flights are highly subject to change. There is really no room for error in spaceflight, so any little complication can cause a flight delay (weather, communications, technology concerns, etc.)

How did you feel when you learned your proposed project was accepted for a space mission?

AP: I just remember feeling incredibly proud and excited that all of the time we put into researching this topic, overcoming potential downfalls in our experimental design, contacting numerous experts for help, and crafting the proposal was all worth it. Our project was going to be in space!

What do you hope to be the long-term impact of your project, including how the results could affect society and the future?

MAK: I hope that our project, in conjunction with other investigations regarding antibiotic effectiveness in outer space, will help guide the use of antimicrobial agents for the treatment and prevention of pernicious bacterial infections contracted by astronauts. Additionally, it would certainly be an interesting surprise if the microgravity environment revealed new mechanisms of antimicrobial resistance that could inform novel drug development here on Earth.

What does this opportunity mean for each of you personally and what are you most excited about?

MAK: For me, the coolest thing about this opportunity is the feeling that something I touched, designed, and worked tirelessly on will be in outer space. This experiment is fulfilling childhood dreams of endless imagination and possibility. I am most excited to see whether our plans will work, what lessons we will learn regardless of the outcome, and if our results are significant!

AP: From the inception of the project, this opportunity for me was all about personal growth and fulfillment. I wanted to grow as future researcher and refine my analytical skills, communication, and creativity. I knew that these would all be improved regardless of the outcome of the competition, and that’s what mattered most to me when I first started. Our project being chosen to be sent in space was pretty cool too. Currently, I am most excited to see what the results of the experiment will be.

"There is nothing you can’t do with curiosity, creativity, resilience, and a little help from your friends and mentors." - Mohamed Adam Kashkoush

What would you say to students who hope to have their experiments carried out on the International Space Station one day?

MAK: There is nothing you can’t do with curiosity, creativity, resilience, and a little help from your friends and mentors. I would probably also provide this quote (from "The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho) that has inspired me in the past: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

AP: Share your ideas and interests with your peers, mentors, and teachers, even if you’re not confident in them. Take every opportunity that comes to you, as well as, don’t be afraid to make opportunities on your own. You never know what your future might hold; the first step is just to try!

DK: Investing your time into learning from others will get you one step closer to creating your own path to success. Asking someone for help is the greatest thing you can do when stuck. And figuring out the question you are attempting to answer holds more importance than the actual answer.

The members of the team will be attending launch, tentatively scheduled for July 8, 2019 in Cape Canaveral, FL to be aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket holding the Dragon cargo spacecraft (CRS-18).

More Information:
Institution: University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy
Principal Investigator: Christian Gauthier
Advisors: Dr. Kerry Empey, Dr. Ravi Patel, Dr. John Donehoo

Citations:
1. Crucian, Brian E., et al. "Immune system dysregulation following short-vs long-duration spaceflight." Aviation, space, and environmental medicine 79.9 (2008): 835-843.
2. Mortazavi, S. M. J. "Acquired Antibiotic Resistance in Escherichia coli Exposed to Simulated Microgravity: Possible Role of Other Space Stressors and Adaptive Responses." mBio 10.2 (2019): e00165-19.

Learn more about DNA/RNA Shield used in this study: