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Monday, May 20, 2024 | Back issues
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Science Company Sues NASA Over Space Shuttle Columbia Crash

PHILADELPHIA (CN) - The crash of Space Shuttle Columbia ruined a decade's worth of fruitful low-gravity experiments to grow a cancer drug in space, Instrumentation Technology Associates says in a $21.6 million claim in Federal Court. The company had been growing large protein crystals on Space Shuttles since 1991, and after the Columbia's disintegration, equipment from the experiment was found in a parking lot in Nacogdoches, Texas. But the feds refused to release it, ruining the experiment.

The following story is taken from ITA's 10-page complaint.

ITA has had a series of agreements with NASA under the Space Act since 1985, and began conducting experiments on Space Shuttles in 1991, with the Atlantis.

ITA's main goal was to grow urokinase protein crystals pure enough and large enough to design a drug to inhibit cancer growth by blocking migration of metastastic cells and targeting them for chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The large size of the molecule makes it easier to grow in the low-gravity environment of space.

The series of experiments resulted in ITA's being able to grow large stable urokinase crystals of 70% purity on Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998. But ITA wanted the crystals to be 99% pure, to study them with X-ray 3-D diffraction studies. ITA's team felt crystals of that purity also could be used to fight cancer.

Space Shuttle Columbia's 16-day mission in January-February 2003 included more than 80 microgravity scientific experiments, including 13 by ITA. ITA said the urokinase on that flight was 99% pure and crystals grown from it would culminate 12 years of work. ITA's equipment include two Dual Materials Dispersion Apparatuses (DMDA), which had been developed in 40 NASA space flights over 15 years.

ITA believes its experiments on Columbia were "an outstanding scientific success," until the craft burned up on re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003.

"Within 24 hours of the re-entry break-up, ITA's DMDA hardware was identified sitting in a parking lot in Nacogdoches, Texas," the complaint states. "The DMDA survived re-entry."

ITA says the urokinase crystals in the DMDA were temperature-sensitive, and it immediately asked NASA for permission to harvest them "before the crystals went back into solution; the request was denied."

Despite knowing of the need to store the equipment in a temperature-controlled place to "protect the science," and despite ITA's repeated pleas, NASA left them in a non-temperature controlled place in Florida until May 5, 2003, by which time the crystals had returned to solution.

"NASA's denial of timely access by ITA to its urokinase crystal experiments made satisfactory X-ray diffraction impossible. ... The acts of the United States resulted in the loss by ITA of a decade's worth of time, research and valuable materials used for urokinase research and development, as well as the destruction of ITA's business."

ITA demands $21.6 million under the Federal Tort Claims Act. It says NASA has blown off four year's of requests for it.

ITA, based in Downington, Pa., is represented by John Hardin Young with Sandler, Reiff & Young of Washington, D.C.

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