By Regina Stracqualursi

An experiment led by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute researchers is currently operating aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The team will gain critical insight into the formation of amyloid fibrils, which are often associated with diseases that affect millions of people, such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Amyloid fibrils occur when proteins assemble into large aggregates.

Designed by Professor Amir Hirsa, the experiment relies on a microgravity environment. That type of environment is needed to observe the effects of stress on protein without solid walls. For the purposes of the experiment, insulin is the protein under examination. Using hardware built by NASA and its contractors, the researchers are looking at the formation of amyloid fibrils by mimicking some of the processes that happen within a human body.

“One of the big reasons you want to go into microgravity is because, other than bones, there are no truly solid interfaces in the human body,” said Joe Adam, a postdoctoral researcher in Hirsa’s lab. “The surfaces of your cells, your neurons, and your brain are fluid interfaces. So, if we can get a system that has more of those fluid interfaces, it will help us to understand the science behind these fibrilization processes.”

The experiment taking place on the ISS builds upon a prior experiment conducted on the station in 2019 as well as several experiments that have taken place on the ground or on parabolic flights. It is conducted in collaboration with and is supported by NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center.