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Franklin R. Chang-Díaz: 1950—: Astronaut, Physicist

Used Space Technology For Improving Drugs

An interesting aspect of Chang-Díaz's work in space is its possible role in finding new treatments for diseases. In 1991, while in Costa Rica to promote more Latin American participation in space projects, Chang-Díaz met with Dr. Jose Zaglul, president of Earth University in Mercedes, Costa Rica. They began discussing the potential that tropical rainforests might have for the discovery of new drugs, including a possible cure for Chagas's disease, a malady caused by the parasite Trypanosoma that kills some 45,000 people a year, mostly in Latin America. Because the microgravity of space creates ideal conditions for the production of crystals—the basic structure of some drugs—Chang-Díaz theorized that the space shuttle could become an important lab for testing components of and treatments for Chagas's disease. He persuaded NASA biochemist Dr. Lawrence J. DeLucas to help him develop and run experiments on the shuttle relevant to the disease. On STS-75, they attempted to study a protein made by the Chagas parasite, but did not have enough time to complete the experiment. Astronauts on four later flights, however, crystallized extracts of an enzyme produced in the disease and researched compounds that could be successful in treating it.

This type of research, Chang-Díaz believed, will provide other kinds of benefits as well—including increased access for Latin-American countries to space technology. "The people of these countries may not have a lot of money," he said in a New York Times article, "but they have brain power. In Latin America's political environment, the correlation between economic development and access to space technology is not yet seen. But the Chagas project could change that." In addition, the project could lead to other innovations. "There is a great connection between the rain forest, biodiversity, and space," Chang-Díaz continued. "Earth University is developing revolutionary techniques for agriculture that take advantage of environmental conditions to grow crops in the framework of environmental wholeness. That's exactly what we must do on long-term duration space missions."

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