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UofL researcher has experiment on space shuttle

August 9th, 2007

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Eugenia Wang.

University of Louisville biochemist Eugenia Wang has learned how to be flexible.

For weeks, she helped lay the groundwork for an experiment to fly cells aboard the space shuttle Endeavor to see how they react to stress. But until the shuttle lifted off Wednesday evening, she didn’t know exactly when the experiment would begin. And she still doesn’t know when — or where — it will end.

There’s one thing she does know, though, about working with NASA and space flights.

“It’s almost impossible to predict the moment when the spacecraft will actually go up,” she said. “I’ve learned to wait until I actually feel the earth shake.”

Wang left for Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Aug. 3 to start pre-flight preparations for the experiment. The original Aug. 9 launch date for STS-118, an 11- to 14-day mission that will be the 22nd U.S. shuttle trip to the International Space Station, later was changed to Aug. 7. A few days before launch, it was moved again to Aug. 8.

“It’s supposed to be ’go’ or ’no go’ at T minus 72 (three days in advance) but a lot can happen after that,” she said. “Weather is also a big factor. Mother Nature is the one calling the shots.”

Not only did Wang have to wait to see when Endeavor would be launched, but she also has no idea whether the shuttle will land in Florida or California.

“I’ll be standing by at Cape Canaveral ready to retrieve the experiment, and my research partner will be standing by at Edwards Air Force Base ready to do it there. We both have mobile phones and we’ll talk to each other as soon as we hear what’s going on.”

Wang is collaborating with Honolulu-based company Hawaii Chitopure to assess the wound-healing properties of a new antibacterial agent derived from shellfish. The agent, chitosan, has shown early promise in fighting bacterial infections and could eventually become a viable alternative to antibiotics.

The shuttle experiment may offer new insight into how space flight weakens the immune system and whether the new agent can offset its effects, she said.

Astronauts commonly are exposed to radiation, low gravity and other sources of physical stress during space flight, she said. If scientists can learn how the body’s cells react in such situations, their findings may lead to new treatments for a wide range of health problems on Earth.

“The entire experiment is automated and self-contained,” Wang said. “All the astronauts have to do to get it going is push one button.”

Wang, who directs UofL’s Gheens Center on Aging, has done research for NASA since 1999, when she took part in a mission on space shuttle Columbia that produces genetic data on the process of inflammation.

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