KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — This coming Saturday morning at ten o’clock, our friend Staphylococcus aureus will find itself buckled up inside a Dragon Spacecraft about to be launched some 250 miles into space so it can dock at the International Space Station (ISS), shown above.
The U.S.- Russian-manned ISS, which orbits the Earth 15 times a day at a speed of 17,000 mph, serves as a cutting-edge science lab because of its near zero gravity environment — the one where you see astronauts floating around the spacecraft like it’s a Disney ride.
As it turns out this microgravity environment is thought to have a pronounced effect on microbes: that it accelerates their rate of growth and reproduction, and therefore their (genetic) mutation rate. Accelerating an organism’s growth rate is a way of fast forwarding into the future, as if you were aging, say, a human, 20 years in just 365 days.
The idea is to place the Staph into that environment, under experimental conditions, and watch what it does. Specifically, to record all the different ways that Staph becomes resistant to an antibiotic as it morphs into Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). You keep at it until you’ve mapped all of the various pathways Staph bacteria take on their road to resistance, in all its forms.
What the finished resistance map gets you is the ability to predict the future. It goes like this. Imagine, for example, that Big Louis comes to town to stick up a bank. He holes up at a local dive from which he cases the joint, decides when to strike, chooses a weapon, a disguise, a getaway car, and plans his escape route. The day of the robbery everything goes according to plan; the cops are called in and begin to work “backwards,” assembling the clues one by one, day by day, hoping they’ll lead to the guy whodunit before he gets away.
But what if, instead, the instant Big Louis hits town the cops know he’s there. They run his M.O. and learn everything within minutes: where he’s holed up, the crime he’s planning, his disguise, weapon, getaway plan, whether he has an accomplice, and so on, thus allowing them to scoop Big Louis at any point prior to the planned bank job.
Where do the cops get all this information? This is the futuristic part: From having recorded not just every crime Big Louis has ever committed, but from having also recorded every crime he will commit over his lifetime. As if an experimenter had placed Big Louis in a time machine, pressed fast forward and recorded all of his future criminal behavior.
That, of course, is science fiction. But putting Staph aureus into a microgravity environment and accelerating its rate of growth and reproduction, recording each genetic change, plugging those changes into a data base, creating algorithms from that data that allow you to predict what Staph will do based on any given presenting genetic profile, and ultimately developing an antibiotic that targets that genetic profile, isn’t science fiction – as of this novel space experiment.
The project is led by Harvard’s Dr. Anita Goel, MD, PhD, whose one-of-a-kind resume is worth taking a look at. She admits that the space bug experiment is proof of concept. For example, they’re experimenting on 2 strains of Staph, yet there are hundreds, not to mention all the other different species of bad bugs that are out there. It’s as if, back to our crime analogy, they’re experimenting on Big Louis and his frequent accomplice, Little Ronnie Dinsdale, but leaving out the rest of the criminal underworld — Tony Soprano, Don Corleone, and so on — each with their own unique M.O.’s.
But here’s the thing. If the experiment works with either strain of Staph, then it means it will work with other disease microbes as well. And then … what about cancer cells?
Just 15 years ago we were introduced to the concept of “Pre-Crime” in the Tom Cruise film Minority Report. Pre-Crime was the name of the specialized police unit that arrested criminals based on foreknowledge of future crimes provided by psychics called “precogs.” Now replace psychics with scientists, have your foreknowledge based on microgravity enhanced “fast-forwarded” observations of the genomic changes in a superbug, and replace Pre-Crime with “Pre-Disease,” and we have Dr. Goel’s current work.
She chose to study Staph because MRSA kills more Americans every year than the combined total of emphysema, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, and homicide. Worldwide, drug-resistant infections kill more than 500,000 people each year and by 2050 that number will exceed 10 million.
But if this notion of “Pre-Disease” intervention works we’ll have a different world. In fact, that’s what Dr. Goel said, with characteristic dry wit, in her 2010 TEDMED Talk: “Our aim with this is humble: We want to do nothing less than to revolutionize healthcare globally by enabling real time point of care diagnosis.”