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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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July 19, 2007

Hype In Spaaaace!

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Posted by Derek

This week's award for the most straight-faced research whopper goes to. . .the government of Brasil, of all the possible candidates. In their attempts to bounce back from a disastrous explosion at their launch site a few years ago, the Brasilians have successfully fired a sounding rocket with an experimental payload.

I'm not quite sure what exactly was in these experiments - from press reports, it looks like some enzyme kinetics and some DNA repair studies. Both of these were to be looked at under microgravity (aka free fall), which I have to say does not sound like a very fruitful area of research to me - of all the forces that affect enzyme behavior, gravity seems like one of the least likely to show any effects.

And there's the problem that (since this was far from an orbital flight) the payload experienced only about seven minutes of free fall. With a faster enzymatic reaction, you might be able to run something similar on a "Vomit Comet" airplane flight, frankly. And as for the DNA repair work, that was to be after exposure to ambient radiation, which no doubt can be simulated quite well on the ground. But that wouldn't be so good for publicity and national pride, would it?

So, what will these experiments lead to, you ask? I'll let the experimental coordinator field that one, although you may well have guessed the answer already: "Eventually, the results could help us develop new processes and pharmaceutical products to treat cancer." Well, sure - with a sufficiently open-minded definition of the word "eventually". And the word "treat". And probably the word "new", and while we're at it, the word "results" as well.

Comments (17) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. Daniel Newby on July 19, 2007 9:32 PM writes...

You do have to give 'em credit for efficiency though. They did it without, er, investing $100 billion in space station.

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2. DLIB on July 20, 2007 1:39 AM writes...

High school experiments in space. The science is a joke.

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3. Anonymous on July 20, 2007 7:13 AM writes...

Why not just spin the reagents in a $1000 centrifuge and extrapolate from there?

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4. Paraiba on July 20, 2007 7:15 AM writes...

Derek, the experiments were added to the VSB as an afterthought actually. They were never meant to be a fundamental part of the project. The primary objective is simply to launch and recover the payload successfully. Fact is, decent government-funded biological research in Brazil is conducted only at USP.

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5. d_orbital on July 20, 2007 7:52 AM writes...

I actually did an undergraduate "research" project in the vomit comet. We were chosen based on proposals written as part of a competition. The science was a total joke but the 15 X 30 seconds of microgravity was an experience of a lifetime (not to mention getting fairly exclusive access to NASAs Houston site). All in all good PR for NASA - quite possibly the aim here also.

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6. Derek Lowe on July 20, 2007 9:20 AM writes...

Paraiba, I thought something like that might be the case. This is typical window-dressing, which makes the "cure for cancer" stuff sound all the more ridiculous. Of course, similar things get said in the US all the time, too. . .Daniel Newby's point about the space station is unfortunately rather accurate.

I'm hoping that there's some value in learning how to assemble things in orbit, in case we want to make some thing more useful eventually.

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7. dearieme on July 20, 2007 9:59 AM writes...

Interesting, though, how the US obsession with cancer is spreading.

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8. JSinger on July 20, 2007 10:14 AM writes...

Daniel Newby's point about the space station is unfortunately rather accurate.

Indeed. In fact I wonder whether this work is any less meaningful at all than most of those "experiments" they're always doing in the US space program. There are a handful of interesting, useful projects that require zero-g but I bet they blew through them decades ago.

C'mon, people -- just admit space is an end in itself!

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9. Jose on July 20, 2007 12:26 PM writes...

Remember all the hype about SpaceLab and the Shuttle program, and how it was going to revolutionize crystal growth, chip manufacture, genetics *and* crop yields?

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10. SRC on July 20, 2007 12:50 PM writes...

Weren't the Brazilians recently threatening compulsory licensing of drugs because they were poor? Glad to hear they've had such a dramatic upturn in fortunes that they can pee away money like NASA.

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11. MTK on July 20, 2007 1:38 PM writes...

That reminds me, how's our mission to Mars thing going?

OK, we can mock Brazil, NASA, and Bush and his nanosecond-lived mission to Mars thing, but it's not all fluff. Weather, communications, GPS, and spy satelites have obviously made a valuable impact. I guess those things wouldn't have happened if we didn't build rockets that could launch payloads of considerable size, such as men. I'm also guessing that a lot of things related to minituarization, computing power, and such grew out of the space program.

That doesn't mean I think the space program as currently mapped out is worthwhile, however. NASA seems obsessed with manned space flights, even though we certainly seem to get more bang for the buck with unmanned exploration.

Like most other things in life, there's some good, there's some bad, and there's always the ridiculous.

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12. Palo on July 20, 2007 3:59 PM writes...

I agree with Paraiba. The research hype is anecdotal, you can find the same thing in any investor's brochure from any Biotech.

The key thing dough, is that the actual mission, as Paraiba says, "Tsimply to launch and recover the payload successfully" was terribly unsusuccessful: they lost the payload.

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13. Derek Lowe on July 20, 2007 4:41 PM writes...

Well, I'll be. The IHT article neglected to mention that fact, but you're right, the payload seems to have sunk.

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14. Anonymous BMS Researcher on July 21, 2007 8:48 AM writes...

Depending on the time constant of the phenomenon being studied, there may be much cheaper ways than the "vomit comet" airplanes to study microgravity. For instance, botanists have for decades being studying plant growth in special growth chambers that tumble around in such a manner that no direction is "up" for very long and all directions are "up" for similar fractions of the time.

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15. Paul Dietz on July 23, 2007 10:30 AM writes...

One bit of perennial hype you hear about microgravity is growing better protein crystals. Does the drug industry view this as skeptically as I do? I suspect they must, given the lack of publicized cooperation with NASA from the major drug companies on this issue.

I've thought that if microgravity really were good at solving this problem, and if the problem were really that important, then gravity-induced convection during crystallization could be reduced here on Earth by using diamagnetic repulsion.

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16. spccdt on July 25, 2007 4:12 PM writes...

Everything in my body seems to work okay when doing a somersault or similar bio-gravity experiments.

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17. Paul Dietz on August 28, 2007 7:08 AM writes...

To respond to myself in #15, I see that just this idea (with diamagnetism) has been tried, and preliminar indications are it seems to work.

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