SpaceX, Elon Musk's privately owned space transportation company, made news today for its successful rocket launch from a historic Kennedy Space Center launch pad. The Falcon 9 rocket is headed to the International Space Station (ISS) to deliver supplies to the astronauts orbiting Earth, but it also carries a new space station resident: a staph infection.
No, SpaceX isn't trying to kill the astronauts. NASA is actually behind the decision to send the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) into space. Lead researcher Dr. Anita Goel wants to study the superbug in the space station's zero-gravity environment. She hopes that this will help doctors down on Earth get a better understanding of how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics.
"I have this hypothesis that microgravity will accelerate the mutation patterns," Dr. Goel said during a NASA press conference. "If we can use microgravity as an accelerator to fast-forward and get a sneak preview of what these mutations will look like, then we can essentially build smarter drugs on Earth."
MRSA bacteria in particular can cause a handful of health issues in humans. Among those problems are pneumonia, skin and bloodstream infections and sepsis. Methicillin is an a type of penicillin that originally served as a treatment for staph infections, but in the 57 years since the antibiotic was discovered, MRSA bacteria have evolved to withstand treatment using the drug.
This won't be the first virus onboard the ISS. The astronauts already maintain a bacteria microbiome on the station. Here, they study how certain microbes develop, as well as how humans might fare during extended spaceflight. The station also maintains various other lifeforms onboard, including a batch of fungus that grew exponentially faster in the zero-gravity environment, compared to the plant's natural environment on Earth. Dr. Goel hopes the same thing will happen with her bacteria.
"If indeed we can use the ISS as an accelerator, an incubator, to know what future mutations of superbugs like MRSA will be, we use that info to develop better algorithms on Earth to inform drug discovery and faster ways to get smarter drugs that are more personalized," Dr. Goel said. "We can have those drugs ready before the mutations even show up on Earth."
If this study goes as planned, it will serve as a sort of crystal ball that gives scientists a glimpse into the future of our planet's superbugs. It would therefore buy doctors some time when it comes to treating these future infections. Until those become immune to the new treatments, that is. Then it's back to space for more studying.