An Israeli hospital is preparing to launch 20 million bacteria into space in order to carry out an experiment that it says will prepare for the medical needs of space tourism, and advance research to combat the “global health threat” of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
As soon as the weather clears over The Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana, a small chip containing E. coli bacteria will blast off on the Arianespace company’s Flight VV16.
It had been originally due to launch Friday morning, but was delayed due to bad weather.
A satellite containing the experiment will leave the rocket and orbit Earth. Two weeks later, a doctor in Ramat Gan will start clicking controls on a computer to mix bacteria from different chambers in the chip and track the experiment in real time.
“It’s safe to say I’m very excited; it’s a remarkable opportunity,” Ohad Gal-Mor, who is leading a team of doctors and microbiologists at Sheba Medical Center, told The Times of Israel.
The two-square-meter satellite will contain three other Israeli experiments, alongside Sheba’s. The Technion – Israel Institute for Technology has an experiment that could contribute to knowledge on anti-bacterial and anti-viral materials and will examine the behavior of germ-killing molecules in microgravity.
Another Technion experiment will test the speed at which blood proteins bind to chemical materials. In addition, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has an experiment on DNA molecules and aging.
Gal-Mor, a molecular microbiologist who heads Sheba’s Infectious Diseases Research Laboratory, said that by monitoring bacteria in space, he expects to draw conclusions that may help develop protocols for medical care of space tourists.
“We’re expecting space tourism to become significant, and when it does, people will get all sorts of diseases,” he said. “In the future, there will be space hospitals, but we don’t have enough knowledge about how infections respond to space.
“This experiment could give us information about these risks, which will be important as people could get all sorts of diseases in space, meaning we’ll need broad medical care.”
He added: “The human body is such that when astronauts go to space, we’re actually sending more bacteria than human cells, and understanding how bacteria can cause infections will become more important as space tourism develops.”
But Sheba’s experiment is primarily aimed at finding out the internal workings of a bacterial change process that currently claims 700,000 lives a year, and could cause 10 million deaths each year by 2050. These are the World Health Organization’s figures for the human cost of antimicrobial resistance, meaning changes in bacteria that make them resistant to antibiotics.
“Old bugs that we thought are already eradicated or at least under control are now coming back, causing more and more resistant infections, such as drug-resistant tuberculosis, gonorrhea and many others infections,” said Gal-Mor. “In some cases, these infections are not only resistant to just one or two antimicrobial drugs, but sometimes they are resistant to multiple drugs — known as ‘multi drug-resistant or ‘extensively drug-resistant’ — and in growing number of cases are no longer treatable.”
The most common mechanism that causes this problem happens when genes responsible for antibiotic resistance in one strain of bacteria are transferred to another strain of bacteria, in a process called horizontal gene transfer. And existing research suggests this process is slowed in microgravity.
“We’ll be testing the theory that it is slowed, and assuming this is correct, examining what we see in order to understand why, exactly, microgravity inhibits the process,” said Gal-Mor. “This could allow us to come up with new solutions and slow the process that is making more bacteria newly resistant to antibiotics.”
The experiment has been produced in a silicon chip of about two square centimeters, with several isolated chambers. There are two strains of E. coli inside: 10 million bacteria that are antibiotic-resistant and 10 million that aren’t.
From his office or home, Gal-Mor will use controls on his computer to mix the E. coli types, so that he can monitor the bacteria that are treatable with antibiotics developing resistance, closely tracking the process and how quickly it happens. He’ll make exactly the same changes to an identical chip that has remained at Sheba, so that he can compare the processes on earth and in space.
He is running the experiment with colleagues Galia Rahav and Bar Piscon, professor and graduate student at Sheba respectively, and Raffaele Zarily, professor at the The University of Naples Federico II in Italy.
The Herzliya-based company SpacePharma developed the chip and the satellite lab in which all four Israeli experiments will be tested. The overall mission is being run in conjunction with the European Space Agency, the Israel Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, with funding from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Israel’s Science and Technology Ministry.